The boots were military, which narrowed his list of possible visitors considerably. Granted, there was no one on the remaining list he wished to see, so Dirk remained where he was, still and silent under his bed.
He watched whoever it was come fully into the room, the door closing behind them. Someone cleared their throat. Dirk recognized the voice immediately. There wasn't enough room under the bed to curl into a ball, but Dirk wanted to. Oh how he wanted to.
"Svlad," Riggins said, sounding unusually patient. Dirk didn't answer. Riggins gave an exasperated sigh.
Dirk watched him cross the room to retrieve Dirk's chair, Riggins dragging it to the edge of the bed, its legs scraping obnoxiously against the terrazzo floors.
"Aren't you a bit big for this?" Riggins asked, the chair creaking beneath his weight. "Also, your feet are sticking out."
Dirk liked it under the bed. It was quiet and dark and when he was a kid no one had ever thought to look for him there. Oh, he had no doubt they knew where he was, but they'd seemed content to leave him in peace, and in a place where he was rarely unobserved, it was nice to escape their scrutiny.
Still, Riggins had a point, Dirk no longer a boy of eleven, the tiny frame of his childhood bunk nowhere near big enough to hide the lanky excess of his adult body. Slowly, and with care not to bump his head, Dirk slid out from beneath it.
He stood with as much dignity as he could muster, taking a minute to straighten his clothes before perching on the edge of the mattress. Only then did he acknowledge his guest.
"I've been told," Riggins said after an extended silence, "the technicians think you're growing restless."
Dirk shook his head, somewhat desperate.
"I'm not, I promise I'm not," he said. Riggins held up a hand.
"That's not what I meant."
In the time he'd known Riggins, Dirk had come to think of him as two separate men. There was the kind, gentle Riggins, who, under different circumstances, Dirk might have considered somewhat of a father figure. This was the Riggins who'd consoled Dirk in the months following his mother's death, back when the Blackwing compound was still a new and terrifying place, Dirk wanting only to go home.
But then there was the other Riggins, the one who was convinced Dirk was psychic--he wasn't. The one who was certain that if he only pushed hard enough he'd find proof. This was the Riggins who took away Dirk's things even when those things consisted of basic necessities like light.
It was hard to tell which Riggins sat across from him now.
"I thought," Riggins continued when it became clear Dirk wasn't going to ask, "that you might like some new books." He glanced to the shelf secured above Dirk's tiny desk, the handful of Blackwing-approved texts worn with overuse.
Dirk knew better than to show excitement, and yet…
"I like the ones with adventures," he said.
"I'll see what I can find," Riggins told him, though he made no move to get up from his chair. Even without asking, Dirk knew: the books came at a price. Some of his excitement faded.
"What do I have to do?" he asked, feeling impossibly small. Riggins tutted, as though disappointed by the question.
"You don't have to do anything, Svlad. The books are a gift."
Dirk knew better than to accept gifts. Nothing here was free. Everything had its price. And yet Riggins remained seated. No cards appeared from his pockets, no thick manilla envelopes were thrown onto the desk. The silence was unnerving. Dirk briefly considered crawling back under the bed.
But then Riggins stood, his hands brushing the creases from his fatigues. He gave Dirk a solicitous look, one Dirk recognized as faint apology, the kind Riggins tended to offer before assigning a particularly unpleasant task. This time, though, Riggins merely shook his head, his jaw tight as he swept from the room.
For a long time after Dirk sat upright on the bed, his fingers curled around the side of the mattress.
The books arrived sometime during Dirk's time in the common room.
They were the first thing he noticed, three new spines staring at him from where someone had stacked them on the desk. The shelf above held similarly coloured spines, the books the only hint of colour in an otherwise sterile room. Dirk had read every one, multiple times.
His favourites were the detective novels. Wilkie Collins. Agatha Christie. Arthur Conan Doyle. The detectives in them used logic and reason to solve puzzles, which was not at all what Dirk did, but Dirk was certain a holistic approach could lead him to much the same conclusions. He saw no reason the solution couldn't be found inside the pattern and web of the whole.
The book on the top of the pile was another detective novel, though not one he recognized. Dirk reached for it with barely concealed excitement.
Removing it from the pile, however, revealed the book directly beneath it, Dirk's breath catching in his throat. This wasn't a novel. It was a travel guide, its front cover depicting a large ferris wheel, London emblazoned overtop of it. Dirk's heart stuttered in his chest.
His mother was from London, or so he'd been told. Supposedly Dirk had lived there for a time, back when he was still Svlad, back before they'd gone to live on his father's sprawling estate in Romania. He didn't remember it, of course, but he supposed he might have gone back there had his mother not died; had Blackwing not come to bring him to America.
The prospect of learning about London, of maybe even visiting there someday, was enough to make him forget about detectives and their interesting puzzles. The first book forgotten, Dirk gathered the guide, and the torch he'd earned by agreeing to let them attach electrodes to him that one time, and carried both under the bed. Away from Blackwing's prying eyes, he began to read.
He read about sprawling shops and how to navigate the city by tube. He read about landmarks and the numerous points one could cross the river. He read about playhouses and quintessential pubs. He got as far as the chapter on London's palaces before the day finally caught up with him, Dirk drifting somewhere between Buckingham and St. James's.
Even then London followed him into his dreams. Big Ben loomed above him, while somewhere on Regent Street the Queen's Guard were having a parade. He entered a chip shop and ordered battered fish in his very best accent. The woman behind the counter asked his name. He gave it over readily. Dirk Gently was a perfectly sound English name. It made him rather glad he'd chosen it, even if Dr. Fenchurch and Colonel Riggins refused to acknowledge it.
Dream Dirk had just convinced himself that London was where he was meant to be when actual Dirk jolted awake. Caught on the hazy edge of not-quite sleep, it took him several seconds to figure out why. Someone, somewhere, was screaming.
His first instinct was to bolt upright, but this proved disastrous, his forehead immediately connecting with the metal frame of the bed, the force of which then sent him ricocheting back so that the back of his head connected with the floor. Wincing, Dirk glared at the frame above him.
"Stupid traitor bed," he said, feeling betrayed.
Out in the hall, the screaming continued.
Dirk considered. He could get up, check the door's window, see if anything presented itself. Or he could remain where he was, secure under the relative safety of his bed. Staying, he suspected, would have been a much more appealing option had his torch not run out of batteries during his nap. He flicked it on and off several times just to be sure, but there was nothing for it. Slowly, with his heart lodged in his chest, Dirk slid out from under the bed.
It was later than he realized, the light filtering in through the window unusually dim. They didn't usually let him fall asleep under his bed. Perhaps this was the privilege of adulthood, Dirk thought, his twenty-first birthday having come and gone. That ought to mean he could do what he liked, even if he still wasn't allowed to leave.
Sometime between emerging from under the bed and reaching the door the screaming had fallen silent. Dirk wanted desperately to believe he'd imagined it. He knew better than to hope for pointless things, though, so with courage he didn't feel, he pressed his face to the glass and peered outside. The hall was empty.
As if on cue the screaming picked up again. It was accompanied by a fierce howling that set his hair on end. Terror coiled in his chest, though the sensation felt more akin to a hunch than outright fear. Whoever was doing the howling was not someone Dirk wanted to meet.
The hunch fast became an impulse to flee, though with nowhere to go Dirk's only option was to retreat back to the relative safety of his bed. More than anything he wanted to crawl back beneath it, but he forced himself to climb under the covers instead, his body stiff as he draw the sheets up over his head.
The next morning, after breakfast, after Dirk was up and dressed and waiting patiently for a technician to bring him to the exercise room, Dr. Fenchurch came to see him.
This wasn't unusual, but given the day's itinerary it was slightly out of the ordinary and if Dirk had learned anything during his time at Blackwing it was that slightly out of the ordinary events were to be treated with caution.
Unlike Riggins, who affected an air of paternal command, Dr. Fenchurch was distant and brisk to a fault. She barely knocked before entering the room, her steady gaze pinning Dirk in place. He knew better than to squirm beneath her scrutiny, and yet he couldn't quite suppress the slight twitching of his hand. Dr. Fenchurch frowned. Doing so hardened her already severe features into an expression of frank disapproval. Her dark hair, drawn back into a tight bun, accentuated her ferocity.
"There's been a change of plans," she said.
"I'm not going to the exercise room?" Dirk asked.
Contrary to its name, the exercise room was not a place to engage in physical activity. It was, instead, a place where Dirk was run through a series of exercises designed, he suspected, to prove Riggins' theory (re: Dirk's non-existent psychic powers). As a child this had meant guessing the backs of cards or choosing numbers seemingly from thin air. As an adult this usually meant getting locked inside a room, his release conditional on Dirk solving an unnecessarily complex puzzle. Needless to say, he wasn't particularly fond of the exercise room. He might even have gone so far as to say he hated it.
"Not today." Dr. Fenchurch said, Dirk torn between trepidation and relief.
She gestured for him to stand, Dirk doing so with some reluctance. As usual, Dr. Fenchurch didn't wait for compliance. Instead she set off through the door, trusting Dirk to follow. Dirk did so with only a mild sense of curiosity.
The halls were silent now, though the screaming had carried on well into the night. At one point the alarms had sounded, pulsing red light spilling into his room. Walking now beneath the faintly blue flickering of the fluorescents, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual had happened, today just another ordinary day.
Except, there was nothing ordinary about Dr. Fenchurch leading him down the hall, away from the exercise room, towards, he suspected, the common room. He wasn't scheduled for time inside the common room, Dirk beginning to wonder if this was another of Riggins' rewards. Either that or another of his tests.
Sure enough, Dr. Fenchurch brought them to a stop outside the common room doors where she turned abruptly to face him.
"I trust you'll be on your best behaviour," she said, Dirk utterly baffled by the statement.
"Um… Yes?" he replied, not sure what else to say.
Dr. Fenchurch gave a curt nod, as though she'd expected nothing less, and then threw open the doors.
Dirk half expected her to follow him into the room. Instead she waited until he was inside and sealed the door shut behind him. For a long time he stood staring over his shoulder, not entirely sure what he was meant to do.
But Dr. Fenchurch was apparently done with him, so Dirk turned around, his gaze flitting about the room before it finally landed on the figure sitting at the table.
Perhaps because he wasn't expecting it, perhaps because it had never happened before, Dirk gave a somewhat embarrassing yelp and scrambled back, stopping only when his back collided with the door. The figure, who had been watching him curiously, narrowed his gaze.
It was a boy, Dirk realized. Well, a man, he supposed. They were around the same age, Dirk thought, though in place of the grey t-shirt and sweats Blackwing provided--or the blue scrubs the technicians wore--this man was wearing jeans and a faded t-shirt, the sort of clothes Dirk only ever saw on television.
It was all terribly exciting.
The boy had stood the second Dirk had noticed him, and was now shifting restlessly from foot to foot, as though not entirely certain how to proceed. Dirk thought he caught a hint of nervousness, but the boy wore a look of sullen annoyance on his face, as though perhaps he was tired of waiting; as though he was thoroughly unimpressed by Blackwing's games. Dirk liked him immediately.
"Hii," he managed, muster the courage to come fully into the room. The boy examined him with open scrutiny.
"Are you part of the program?" he asked. Dirk's heart stuttered in his chest.
"Do you mean Blackwing?" Dirk asked, excitement mounting.
He'd heard of the others, knew of their existence, and yet to meet another subject, to meet someone like him, someone…
"What's Blackwing?" the boy asked, shattering Dirk's illusion.
"It's… um, where we are?" Dirk said, half a question. His words were met with frank incredulity.
"I mean are you here for the program, the pararibulitis one."
Pararibulitis was not a word in Dirk's vocabulary. He tested it silently, forming the letters with the tip of his tongue. The boy continued to stare, wary and suspicious.
"I don't think so," Dirk said. "I live here."
That earned him a slight widening of the boy's eyes, as though he couldn't imagine why anyone might live in a place like this. It struck Dirk then that the boy was someone from outside. Dirk bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet.
"You're from outside," he said.
He had so many questions. So many things he wanted to know.
"Sorry, who exactly are you?" the boy asked. He sounded as though he was starting to worry Dirk might be dangerous, the very last thing Dirk wanted him to think. He forced himself to stop bouncing, though his body continued to tremble, this without his permission.
"Sorry, I'm Dirk. Dirk Gently. Well, that's not technically my name, but it's the name I chose for myself. It's quite a good name, don't you think? As I was saying, I live here, but you're from outside so obviously you don't live here and… sorry, why did you say you were here again?"
Dirk couldn't remember having ever spoken this much in his life. At least, not to another person, and definitely not since arriving at Blackwing. He wanted to know everything there was to know about the boy. He wanted to know his name and where he'd bought his clothes and if he'd ever been to London. He wanted to know what it was like outside these walls, Dirk's memories hazy and ill-defined. He wanted to know if pizza tasted as good as it looked on television; if the world was really like that, all colourful sets and carefully timed jokes. He wanted to know if there was something more than all this grey.
The boy cleared his throat.
"I...um... signed up to be part of a research study. They told me to wait in here. Wait, what do you mean you live here?"
The boy spoke like he was half asking a question, half making an accusation. He was easily the most fascinating person Dirk had ever met. He was still standing at the table, so Dirk crossed the room and claimed the seat across from him. This seemed to startle the boy, but after a moment he reclaimed his seat so that they ended up sitting directly across from one another, Dirk riveted by the boy's stare.
"I've always lived here," Dirk explained. "Well, since I was a kid anyway. I came to stay here after my mother… But that's not really important. What do you mean you signed up to be part of a research project? Voluntarily?"
The notion seemed ludicrous. He couldn't imagine anyone volunteering for this. Were the choice his, he would have left long ago.
And yet, where would he go? What would he do? The thought of leaving Blackwing both excited and terrified him. And now here was this boy--this man--someone from outside who knew what it was like to live outside Blackwing's rule, and he had come here voluntarily?
"Well, they're paying me," the boy said, as though this ought to explain everything. "And you know, pararibulitis kind of sucks, so I guess it would be cool if they found a cure for it."
Nearly everything the boy was saying went straight over Dirk's head, though Dirk was too busy fixating on the part where he was having an actual conversation to notice. It was the kind of thing he'd only ever read about, but here he was, talking to someone who might have been a peer, the two of them getting to know each other via a series of back and forth questions. The experience was far more gratifying than he'd imagined.
"Ah," Dirk said registering then that he was meant to respond. "I suppose you could say I'm part of a research study, too, except I don't think it's the same thing. Well, maybe it is… What exactly is pararibulitis?"
The boy was staring again, as though he was beginning to question why Dirk was the only other person in the room. He glanced briefly over his shoulder, to a set of doors Dirk had never been allowed through. When he glanced back, he suspicion had returned.
"Sorry, you're part of a research study, but not one on pararibulitis, and you live here?"
That sounded accurate. Dirk nodded. The boy looked a little taken aback, like he wasn't quite sure where to start. After a minute, he shook his head.
"Right… Pararibulitis. It's a nerve disease. It causes your brain to misinterpret certain inputs."
Dirk smiled as though the boy's explanation made perfect sense. After a minute, he realized it didn't.
"So that means…"
The boy huffed with impatience.
"You have hallucinations that feel real. Water on your hand can feel like fire. Breathing can feel like drowning."
Dirk was beginning to get a picture. "God, I'm sorry, that sounds terrible."
"Yeah, well, like I said, it sucks, so if this study can help find a cure for it…"
The boy shrugged, as though the final outcome didn't matter. Dirk rather thought it did, however none of that explained why Blackwing was interested in a boy with a nerve disease, or why they'd allowed Dirk to meet him.
More importantly, none of it offered Dirk a name.
"Sorry, what's your name?" he asked.
The boy blinked, seemingly surprised by the question.
"Um, Todd, it's Todd," he said.
Todd, Dirk thought, savouring the name. It was a good name. Almost as good as Dirk. Dirk liked it immediately.
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Todd," Dirk said, not quite able to suppress a wave of giddy excitement. Todd was still looking at him strangely, so Dirk hastened to explain.
"I don't get to meet that many people, or any people at all, really, so… I mean, obviously I've met some people, and before I came to live here I had friends. Well, not really friends, per se. More like acquaintances. Possible people I knew who didn't much like me, though that was so long ago now it's hardly worth remembering. My point being that it's nice to meet someone my own age. I think we're going to be great friends. Do you like pizza?"
The conversation, Dirk thought, was going swimmingly. And if television and books had taught him anything it was that Todd would answer, perhaps provide a personal tidbit that Dirk could file away for later. This was all part of the process, and it was all going exceedingly well, except for the part where Todd hadn't answered; where Todd was still staring at Dirk like Dirk had grown a second head.
Just to be sure, Dirk checked. Nope, still only the one.
"I think I'd rather like pizza, though I haven't yet had the occasion to try it. It's on my to-do list, you know, for after I… Well…"
Dirk gestured to the room, feeling then as though they probably weren't yet at a point in their relationship where Dirk could divulge that information--never mind that Blackwing had cameras here too, nothing they said confidential.
"I'm also going to live in London," Dirk continued, when it became clear Todd didn't intend to say anything. "My mother's from London, and I have this guidebook that lists all its attractions. Have you ever been to London?"
Here he paused, half expecting more of Todd's silence. To his surprise, Todd shook his head.
"I've never been outside the country," he said, still sounding impossibly tense. Dirk waved it aside.
"Well, then you'll have to come visit me," he said, as though Todd visiting was a forgone conclusion.
He could almost picture it, the two of them strolling about arm in arm, poking into shops, perhaps taking a riverboat cruise up the Thames. Oh, they probably sold pizza in London.
It was entirely possible he was getting ahead of himself.
"Sorry, you said you were here for a study?" Todd asked, drawing Dirk from the thought. It was a fair question, but not one Dirk wanted to answer.
He was spared from having to do so when the far doors--the ones Dirk had never been through--swung open, someone he didn't recognize coming into the room. The man wore the same blue scrubs as the technicians Dirk did know, so it wasn't hard to piece together who he was. He glanced briefly to the table, and then to the clipboard in his hands.
"Todd?" he asked. Something caught in the back of Dirk's throat.
He couldn't quite tell if it was disappointment at the prospect of Todd leaving, or relief at no longer having to answer Todd's question.
"That's me," Todd said, rising from the table. The technician gestured for him to follow. Dirk's stomach sank. Disappointment then.
"I guess I'll see you around," Todd said, turning his attention back to Dirk.
"Of course, I…" Dirk got out before registering the technician's scrutiny. Swallowing his words, he offered a brief nod instead. Todd's gaze lingered, though only for a moment, and then he was shaking his head; following the technician from the room.
Dirk stared after him, still not entirely sure he understood the point of the exercise; still not entirely sure what Blackwing had gained from the encounter. He contemplated both until a technician he did recognize came to bring him back to his room.
His actual memories started around the time he was six, possibly a little earlier, though mostly Dirk remembered being tormented in and out of school until his mother finally withdrew him and set about teaching him at home. This, of course, lasted just until his mother's passing, an event Dirk remembered quite distinctly.
Afterwards, he'd spent some time living with an older woman who'd tutted and frowned and had seemed utterly distressed by Dirk's ability to locate wayward cats. At some point she must have decided Dirk would be better off in someone's else's hands, because not two weeks into his stay Dirk had come home from school--she'd sent him back--to find two uniformed men with American accents talking to her in the kitchen.
That night he'd flown to America.
His life inside Blackwing was a different story, so far removed from anything he'd know it might as well have happened to another person. Certainly, when he reflected on it, there was his life before Blackwing, and his life after.
Meeting Todd felt somewhat similar.
Possibly he was being dramatic, but then prior to meeting Todd Dirk's life was an unvarying slog through unfulfilling tasks and boring, boring repetition. If he knew the date at all it was because Blackwing had provided it, the days and weeks bleeding into months and years, time moving steadily forward, unanchored.
Todd, as it turned out, was a paid participate in an outpatient study that Riggins implicitly stated had nothing to do with Blackwing. Dirk knew better than to trust Riggins' word, but Riggins had offered to facilitate additional meetings, something about spending time with someone his own age being good for him, so Dirk wasn't about to push his luck now that he had something to look forward to.
It unfortunately meant he also had something to lose, which meant he spent the better part of the next week both anticipating Todd's arrival and dreading the inevitable moment it was taken away from him. Five days after meeting Todd, two days before he was scheduled to see him again, Dirk was so sleep deprived he fell asleep in the middle of a simulation.
To be fair, the simulation was rather mundane, Dirk having been given a series of keys that he was expected to match to their respective padlocks. For every one he got right, he earned a point. For every one that required trial and error, he lost two. Each point represented an hour in the common room. This wasn't the first time he'd been given such a task. It was, however, the first time he'd been left to complete it alone.
Leaving him alone was their mistake, but it was Dirk who succumbed to five days exhaustion, so he really only had himself to blame. His vision began to blur, the line of carefully coloured padlocks--that didn't match the colourless keys--becoming an indistinct rainbow. He had no recollection of what came after. One minute he was awake, and the next he was being woken, Dirk's cheek pressed against the table, the sharp edge of a key digging into his jaw.
A few moments were lost to confusion before he realized what he'd done. How like him to fulfill his own prophecy. Dirk braced himself for the inevitable.
Except, no reprimand came. Instead he was led back to his rooms, where he was left to fend for himself until, exhausted, Dirk crawled beneath the covers and finally managed a few hours of blissful, albeit fitful, sleep.
Riggins arrived the next morning.
"I'm sorry," Dirk said, not bothering to hide his desperation.
He was sitting cross-legged on the bed, his London book left open in his lap. He wasn't reading it, merely staring at the pictures, his mind racing as he tried to come up with a suitable promise that might convince Riggins to let him see Todd again.
Riggins didn't acknowledge the apology. Instead he crossed to the desk to retrieve his customary chair. This time he carried it into the middle of the room, setting it down far enough back to give the illusion of space, but close enough that Dirk still felt the need to scoot back on the bed.
"When I was a young man," Riggins eventually said, speaking softly, the way he did when he wanted Dirk to pay attention. "I saw something that changed my view of the universe."
He leaned forward as he said it, as though imparting a great secret. Dirk found himself listening intently.
"I watched a woman step out onto the street just as a car came around the corner. The driver wasn't paying attention, and the car was moving so fast I knew he was going to hit her. I knew he was going to hit her and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
"And then something remarkable happened."
Here he paused, meeting Dirk's eye as though wanting to ensure Dirk was listening. Dirk remained where he was, his knees now hugged to his chest, his eyes wide as he struggled to understand what Riggins wasn't saying.
"A man passing by on the sidewalk reached out, not to save the woman, but to steal her purse. He took it from her with enough force that she toppled back, the car missing her by inches."
Slowly the pieces started falling into place, Dirk beginning to sense that he wasn't going to like where this was going. Riggins pressed on.
"The man who'd stolen her purse took off running, but the driver of the car was so spooked he jumped the curb and ended up hitting the purse thief instead. The purse thief flew forward and the woman's purse flew back, right back into the hands of the woman who'd lost it."
He paused again, this time giving Dirk a significant look.
"I understood then the universe wasn't just random chaos. There was a bigger picture. Life had meaning. And then I met you, and I knew it was real. You were proof."
Here his expression grew dark, Riggins leaning a little further into Dirk's space. His next words came out barely a whisper.
"I thought if I brought you here, if I brought the others here, we could figure it out. We might get a glimpse of the bigger picture, make sense of the universe." He shook his head. "I thought I could control the universe's chaos, replicate it in a lab, but…"
Again he shook his head, whatever else he was going to say falling away. Dirk struggled to understand. The task seemed insurmountable. He knew only that none of it pertained to Todd, and right now that was his most pressing concern.
"Tomorrow, you said…"
A brief flicker of confusion stilled Dirk's words, but then Riggins' expression cleared, a fondness he hadn't seen in years taking its place.
"Todd's appointment is at two," Riggins said. "I'll send someone to retrieve you."
Dirk managed a grateful nod, though his entire body trembled with barely concealed excitement. He wanted to spring from the bed and launch himself at Riggins, like he had when he was a child, Riggins bringing him small items of comfort that he'd kept hidden under the bed. It didn't matter than Riggins had eventually taken them all away, only that Dirk was grateful for having been given them, Todd no different from the stuffed rabbit he'd received when he was twelve, or the notebook and pens he'd received at sixteen.
Riggins' expression suggested he agreed. Some of Dirk's enthusiasm waned.
And yet, his stomach continued to flutter, even after Riggins stood and replaced the chair. Just once he wanted to succumb to hope. Just once he wanted to ignore the impending dread that came with anything new and potentially good.
"I trust," Riggins said after he'd finished replacing the chair, "that today will prove a bit more productive?"
A small part of Dirk wished he could say he was surprised, but Riggins' gifts always came at a price. Still, Dirk nodded, anything for a chance to see Todd.
It earned him a smile, one Dirk instantly recognized. This was Riggins' try your best but don't fail because too much is riding on this for you to let me down smile. Riggins' story began to make sense. Todd wasn't a gift. He was a carrot. Incentive for Dirk to give Riggins what he needed.
How long, Dirk wondered, before Riggins' realized he wasn't going to get it. How long before he understood that Dirk wasn't what Riggins thought he was?
Too late, he realized, that it didn't matter how long it took. That the end result was still the same. Riggins would take Todd away because Dirk couldn't deliver on the promises Riggins had made.
"They catch the killer on page three hundred and forty-two," Dirk said aloud. Alone in his room, there was no one to give an answer, but that wasn't the point of the exercise.
Someone would come to retrieve him, Riggins had said, so Dirk sat on the edge of his bed with his feet firmly planted on the floor and his new detective novel propped in his lap. He flipped to the page in question, but found no mention of them having caught anyone. In fact, there was no mention of a killer at all. Only an elderly lady who'd invited the detective in for tea, her cat having gone missing a fortnight prior.
Dirk shook his head. Still not psychic.
And yet it was worth a try. Perhaps Riggins was right. Perhaps it was a learned skill, in which case time and practice might yield results. Yield enough results and maybe, just maybe, they'd continue to let him see Todd. It was enough to renew some of his hope, anyway.
It grew steadily as he waited, Dirk guessing page after page, none of them right. Eventually he flipped the book over and read the blurb on the back. Not a murder then. A jewel heist. Well, there was his problem. Dirk tried again.
Again and again until there came a knock at his door. Dirk glanced up sharply, the book falling to land spine up in his lap. The technician caught his eye through the window. Dirk set the book aside, though not without first glancing at the page it sat open on. The detective who'd shared tea with the missing cat woman was now arresting a primary school teacher for cat burglary. Page three-hundred and sixty four. Figured.
"Is it time?" Dirk asked as the technician came into the room. He'd stood and was now brushing imaginary wrinkles from the soft grey t-shirt he wore. The sweats, a shade darker, had bunched awkwardly over his calves. Dirk used his plimsoll-clad feet to push the cuffs back down again. The technician nodded.
"Let's go," he said, sounding resigned. Dirk offered him a falsely bright smile.
Despite the circumstances, despite knowing what Riggins was trying to accomplish--and where it would ultimately lead--it was hard not to get caught up in renewed excitement. He still wanted to see Todd again. He still wanted to get to know him, to ask him about the outside world; to cling to that connection for however long they permitted it because frankly it was still the most exciting thing to happen to him in years.
So he followed the technician out into the hall, Dirk struggling to remain a pace behind as they made their way to the common room. There, he waited patiently, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet as the technician let him into the room.
He spotted Todd immediately.
He'd spent the better part of the week committing Todd to memory, and yet the sight of him still took Dirk by surprise. Today he was wearing a blue and grey button down, open over a black t-shirt. He'd paired it with a pair of faded, ripped jeans and black, high-top trainers.
He was standing beside Blackwing's shelf of approved DVDs. Dirk had seen everything in the collection at least twice. Some upwards of ten. He wanted to tell Todd that, to show him his favourites and ask about the films Blackwing hadn't approved, the ones he was certain existed outside of these walls.
Instead he struggled to contain a smile, renewed excitement bubbling in his chest now that he and Todd were in the same room.
"Hii," Dirk said, at a loss for words.
His first instinct was to extend his hand, though Todd was too far away for that so at the last second it turned into a feeble attempt at a wave. Todd didn't appear to notice, the startled expression he'd worn when Dirk first entered the room replaced by recognition.
"It's Dirk, right?" he said, turning around. Dirk inflated, pleased Todd had remembered.
"And you're Todd. Todd… Actually, I didn't catch your last name, though I don't suppose I need to know it. Unless of course you want to tell me it, in which case I'd be happy to know because you obviously already know mine. Well, sort of. No, no, you do. Dirk. Dirk Gently. That's definitely my name."
Todd's gaze grew narrow, his expression as suspicious as it was confused. Dirk felt an uncomfortable desire to laugh. Instead he stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back onto his heels. After a minute or so, Todd shook his head.
"It's Brotzman," he said
Dirk needed a second to trace the connection. As soon as he did a wide smile broke out over his face, his eyes crinkling beneath it.
"Todd Brotzman," Dirk said. It was a perfectly sound name. A good name, even. Dirk Gently and Todd Brotzman. He liked the sound of that.
Todd's expression had shifted again. If Dirk had to name it, he'd call it wary, though he had no idea what he'd done to warrant it. Todd, Dirk suspected, was a man of many moods. Keeping up with them was harder than he'd anticipated. Apparently this whole friend-making business was also harder than it looked. It didn't help that up until now he'd been relying almost entirely on books and television to set the example. He was beginning to suspect he needed something a bit more concrete. A how-to guide, for example.
"Er…" Dirk tried, though it proved tremendously unhelpful. Todd, for his part, continued to stare.
"Are you, like, here all the time?" Todd eventually asked. Dirk couldn't quite tell if he meant it as a question or an accusation. He opted to interpret it as an attempt at conversation.
"Well, not every day," he said, quite seriously. "There's a points system. I earn points when I get something right, and lose them when I get something wrong. I can then trade them in for certain privileges, like time in the common room."
They were still standing across the room from one another, Todd looking at Dirk like he thought Dirk might be crazy, Dirk caught between a desire to explain and the fervent hope Todd would understand all on his own.
"So… you're here because you earned points?" Todd asked, sounding more than a little confused. So much for Todd understanding on his own.
"Well, some days, but not today," Dirk explained. "Today I was allowed to come without the points. Or maybe they're going to charge me points. I actually didn't ask about that. But my point is Riggins… he's, well, I don't actually know what he is in relation to you, but he said I could come so here I am."
Somewhere in all of that he'd lost Todd, Dirk could tell, Todd's expression one of utter bafflement. He glanced to his watch, and then to the door before once again catching Dirk's eye. Dirk had the distinct impression he was starting to get a bit nervous.
"You don't have to talk to me," he said, aiming for reassurance. A brief flicker of surprise crossed over Todd's features. "I mean, if you don't want to," Dirk hastened to add. "Or, if you wanted, we could watch television, oh, or play a board game. There's lots of games. I've played all of them, but I'm not sure it's really the same. Most of them are two-player games and I've never had anyone to play with before so…"
Dirk gave an abortive gesture, still not entirely sure what he was doing wrong. In his mind, he and Todd had already moved past this. In his mind they sat across from one another at the table, a game set up between them. Or maybe they sat side by side on the couch, laughing at something on television.
Instead they stood on opposite sides of the room, Todd staring like he thought Dirk particularly strange, Dirk casting vainly for something to say.
It was Todd who broke the stalemate, much to Dirk's surprise and delight. His expression softened, and some of the tension he'd been carrying visibly draining. He gestured towards the couch, an invitation, Dirk thought, though it wasn't until Todd starting moving that he was sure. Even then, he waited for Todd to sit before crossing the room to join him.
He sat so that his back was against the armrest, his knees drawn into his chest. Todd had somehow wedged himself into the opposite corner, his knees slightly spread, his hands in his lap. Were it not for the way he kept glancing towards the door, Dirk would have thought he was settling in for a long conversation.
"Why do you live here again?" Todd asked, as though the question had been bothering him for some time.
Dirk opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it again, not entirely sure how to proceed. Because they won't let me leave sprang to mind, as did because I have nowhere else to go, both of which Dirk rejected, though for entirely different reasons.
"I told you, I'm part of a study," Dirk settled on. "It's an inpatient study," he explained, remembering Riggins' words. Todd was part of an outpatient program.
"Okay, but what's wrong with you?" Todd asked.
Dirk knew he didn't mean anything by it--just like he knew it was a perfectly reasonable question given the circumstances--and yet it still hurt to hear, Dirk growing defensive.
"Nothing," he said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just an ordinary person. I certainly don't have any kind of powers. Nothing the CIA would be even remotely interested in. I'm a normal man doing a normal study about normal things."
In hindsight, he probably shouldn't have mentioned powers, or the CIA for that matter, Todd now staring at him like he was beginning to regret inviting Dirk over to the couch.
"Sorry," Dirk said, "I didn't mean…" But Todd was already shaking his head.
"It's fine. I shouldn't have implied…"
"You didn't," Dirk was quick to assure.
This had all gone so much smoother in his head. By this point he and Todd should have been well on their way to becoming friends. Certainly when he'd pictured today he'd imagined them bonding over a common interest. Instead Dirk was still at a loss for words, while Todd continued to look more and more uncomfortable, Dirk half convinced he intended to leave.
"I don't actually know why I'm here," Dirk admitted, desperate for Todd to remain.
To his surprise, Todd's features shifted, his expression becoming one of intense interest. Dirk gestured vaguely with his hand.
"I came to stay here after my mother died, and I'm not really sure what they want from me, but I guess I'm part of some kind of study because there are lots of people in lab coats and they always want me to solve puzzles for them, so…"
Dirk trailed off, not because he'd run out of things to say, but because Todd was staring again, his eyes wide like he thought Dirk a little strange. Dirk flailed a little before switching tack.
"It doesn't matter, because I'm not what they say I am, and as soon as they realize that I'm going to go to London and become a detective."
That earned him a raised eyebrow, which was marginally better than Todd's blank stare so Dirk opted not to question it. Instead he shifted nervously against his armrest, not entirely sure what else to say.
"Do you… know how to be a detective?" Todd asked, saving Dirk the trouble. This, at least, Dirk could answer.
"Oh yes," he said, "I've read all sorts of books. Plus, I sort of have a knack for solving puzzles. Well, not so much a knack. But I am good at seeing the bigger picture. Or maybe eventually getting to the bigger picture. Granted I take a slightly more holistic approach, but…"
He forced himself to stop, not because Todd was still staring at him--though he was--but because the more he talked the more he wanted to explain about the interconnectedness of the universe and he suspected Todd just wasn't ready to hear it.
"What about you?" he asked instead, deflection having served him well in the past.
"Sorry?" Todd asked, sounding more than a little lost.
"You know," Dirk said, "what do you want to be?"
He almost added when you grow up, the question one Dirk remembered hearing as a child. He wasn't a child anymore, and even if he was it wouldn't have mattered. No one at Blackwing had bothered to ask. They'd simply assumed. Dirk was what they said he was, ergo Dirk would become what they wanted him to become.
"Oh, um… I play guitar." Todd drew aside his button down as he spoke, revealing the t-shirt he wore underneath. Sprawled across its front, in messy, childish letters were the words Mexican Funeral.
"It's, um, my band," Todd said, sounding surprisingly sheepish. Dirk leaned forward excitedly. A million questions raced through his head.
Unfortunately, he didn't get a chance to ask any of them, the doors on the far side of the room swinging open, another unknown technician stepping into the room.
Todd stood, though he still waited for the technician to call his name before leaving the couch. Midway to the door he paused, Dirk's breath catching as Todd glanced back over his shoulder.
"I guess I'll see you around," he said, seeming then on the verge of saying something more. Dirk held his breath, and waited.
Whatever it was, Todd shook it off, Dirk numb as the technician led him from the room. There were still so many things he wanted to say; so many questions he wanted to ask. Mostly, though, he wanted to know what it would take to see Todd again.
Riggins, he suspected, would be pleased.
Except he didn't see Riggins. The same technician who'd brought Dirk to the common room brought him back to his room, where Dirk spent the remainder of the day largely unattended.
The next morning was more of the same, Dirk left to his own devices, as antsy as he was bored. He was used to schedule, routine, and yet there was no one to take him to his next slated activity, whatever that might be. For the first time in years he felt adrift, the sensation oddly terrifying.
It reminded him of his early days inside Blackwing, back when Dirk was still Svlad, the bigger picture as much a mystery as the cards they'd asked him to guess. It occurred to him then that perhaps this was another test, another of Riggins' experiments, figuring out the parameters as important as finding a solution. His life had varied so little in the years following his mother's death, and now they had given him new books, permitted him to make a friend, and were leaving him to his own devices. A part of him thought he should relish his newfound privileges. Instead he twisted the hem of his t-shirt between his fingers and tried to convince himself that the fluttering in his stomach was breakfast and not the certainty of impending doom.
If he were psychic, he'd know what to do next. As he wasn't, it left him waiting on Blackwing, Dirk not used to deciding how to spend his time. One of his legs was bouncing somewhat violently, pent up energy making him twitch. He let his gaze roam about the room, taking in the desk, the chair, the closed door that led into the bathroom. By the time he'd finished his circuit, a shadow had fallen across the floor.
Dirk glanced up sharply, as surprised as he was relieved to find a technician outside his door. The technician caught his eye through the glass. Dirk lept to his feet. By the time the man entered the room, Dirk was practically vibrating with anticipation.
He pressed up onto the balls of his feet, bouncing slightly before dropping back down, this particular technician not liking it when Dirk got over-eager. The technician shot him a look. Dirk offered a suitably contrite smile.
"Come on then," the technician said, gesturing Dirk out of the room.
Despite not knowing where he was going, Dirk went eagerly, anything to end the ceaseless waiting. The technician was obviously better informed. He led Dirk down the hall with purpose, Dirk trailing a pace behind, his tongue clenched between his teeth to keep from talking.
There was no point trying for conversation. Dirk knew every one of Blackwing's technicians, even if he didn't always know their names, and this one was particularly standoffish. It left Dirk following silently in his wake, the further they went the more obvious their destination. Dirk's stomach sank.
He could count on both hands the number of times he'd been into the administrative wing. Riggins had offices here, as did Dr. Fenchurch, and sometimes Dirk found himself seated across from them at their desks, but more often he was brought into the sparsely decorated observation room, Dirk asked to perform tasks while staring into the reflective side of a one-way mirror.
He tensed a little as they passed the door, but to his surprise the technician led him further down the hall, depositing him instead outside Dr. Fenchurch's open office door.
"Come in, Icarus," she said, Dirk cringing a bit at the designation. Riggins, at least, called him Svlad, though he would have preferred they both use his chosen name.
"Doctor," Dirk said, trying to remember the last time he was here. It had been a while. Dirk could no longer recall the offence.
She gestured for him to take a seat on one of the hardbacked chairs that faced her desk. Dirk did as instructed. The technician closed the door behind him, leaving Dirk alone in Dr. Fenchurch's company, trapped by her gaze.
"I…" he began, resisting the urge to ask what he'd done. She'd tell him, eventually, once she was done staring; cataloguing whatever it was she was cataloguing. In hindsight, he would have given anything to have spent the day locked in his room, bored but safe.
Her office had changed little in the time Dirk had been at Blackwing. It was still about as sparse as the observation room, the walls blank, the shelves behind her desk filled with rows upon rows of unlabeled binders. There was a filing cabinet tucked into the corner, beside it a window, the shades drawn.
A new monitor sat on her desk, this bigger than her previous one, though she'd still pushed it to the side, Dr. Fenchurch preferring paper and pen. She had a file sitting on her desk, Dirk desperate to know what was in it. Its thinness suggested it didn't belong to him.
"How did your meeting go with Todd?" she asked.
"Colonel Riggins said I could see him again," Dirk said, oddly defensive. Dr. Fenchurch nodded.
"Of course. We'd like for you to continue seeing him. Would you like that?"
Dirk was nodding before he registered doing so. "Yes," he eventually got out, though not without stumbling. Dr. Fenchurch offered a smile.
It was a rare enough sight that Dirk drew back, not entirely sure what to make of it. It certainly wasn't the most natural smile, though Dirk suspected that had less to do with insincerity and more to do with inexperience. Dirk attempted to return it.
"Tell me about him," Dr. Fenchurch prompted. The file on her desk was still closed, Dirk's gaze drifting towards it.
"Um… he seems nice?" Dirk tried. Todd, of course, seemed more than nice. He was the most fascinating person Dirk had ever met and Dirk wanted to know everything there was to know about him. He had no idea why Dr. Fenchurch was interested in this, though he knew she was never one to miss a chance for leverage. Was that what this was? Todd a pawn meant entirely to manipulate Dirk into doing Blackwing's bidding. Or was there something he was missing. Once again his gaze drifted to the closed file on Dr. Fenchurch's desk.
"I don't really know him all that well," Dirk continued when it became clear Dr. Fenchurch wasn't going to comment. "I've only met him twice, and not for very long. He's involved in some kind of study, I think. Something about nerves. Do you know about that? It seemed a bit strange…"
Dirk trailed off, fearing then that he'd already said too much. Like so many of Blackwing's experiments, Dirk hadn't the foggiest clue what she wanted from him. She was listening intently, though, as though Dirk had already revealed more than he'd intended.
"Um," he said again, rather lamely.
"If we were to arrange extended visits, beyond Todd's appointments, would that interest you?"
If she'd surprised him previously, she'd rendered him speechless now, Dirk capable only of staring, mouth open, his eyes gone wide. He blinked, his mouth opening and closing several times before anything came out.
"Um, ba, um, but of of course. Yes. Except…" He narrowed his gaze, still not entirely sure of her motivation. There was nothing else for it. He had to ask.
Dr. Fenchurch gave him a considering look.
"Your welfare is important to us, Icarus," she said, clearly considering her words carefully. Dirk leaned forward in his chair, listening intently. "And we feel at this point in your development you need to form bonds outside of these walls."
In the time he'd known her, Dr. Fenchurch had never once lied to him, and yet he knew her well enough to know her words were never what they seemed. This wasn't Riggins telling him a story about a woman and a car. And it wasn't Dirk piecing together the most logical conclusion. There was something he was missing. He was sure of it.
"Does Todd get a choice?" Dirk asked, because that was important.
"Of course," Dr. Fenchurch said. "And of course there are parameters you'll need to follow. And your interactions with him will be monitored."
That, at least, wasn't a surprise. Dirk knew all about the cameras in the common room. He'd just assumed they'd been monitored since day one.
"Is that why he's here?" Dirk asked, needing to know. He hated the idea of Todd thinking he was here for one thing--for a possible cure to something that sounded frankly awful--only to learn Blackwing had manipulated him for Dirk's benefit.
Dr. Fenchurch, her hands now pressed flat against the file on her desk, shook her head.
"Todd is participating in a research study outside of our mandate. It doesn't concern you. Any additional sessions we set up will be outside those requirements. He will of course need to volunteer, and we will of course compensate him for his time."
A paid friend, Dirk thought dolefully, still trying to figure out what it was she wasn't saying. He knew of course Riggins' motivation. Todd was a reward, something Riggins could take away, meant entirely to encourage Dirk's cooperation. But what did Dr. Fenchurch want? He didn't for a minute believe it was his welfare. Again his gaze dropped to the file. The answer, he suspected, lay within.
"I'd like that," he heard himself say. "I mean, the additional sessions, provided Todd agrees."
This time, he thought, glancing up, Dr. Fenchurch's smile was genuine. She looked… pleased. Pleased and perhaps a little relieved, as though the outcome of their conversation was more important than she'd initially let one. Dirk considered that. And then he considered what it would mean to see Todd more than once a week, and whether it was possible to befriend someone being paid for their time.
He had no idea what they'd learned from the experiment, but they'd never asked him to repeat it so Dirk had assumed it was just another in a long line of tests designed to prove he was psychic. As he wasn't, the experiment was doomed to failure, something Dirk could have told them from the beginning had they thought to ask. Then again, he might not have. He'd really, really wanted that torch.
Just like he really wanted to see Todd again, so much so that he would have agreed to just about anything, including another round with the electrodes. Perhaps it was fortunate Blackwing seemed only interested in observation.
Or so Dirk had to presume. He could see no other reason for these meetings, whatever Blackwing was gaining from them well beyond Dirk's understanding. It was possible, he supposed, this was all a ruse, an experiment designed to push Dirk to the limit, just to see what would happen. That might explain the empty common room, though Dirk couldn't begin to fathom what anyone would gain from such a ploy. Far more likely Todd simply had yet to arrive.
He let his gaze drift around the room, taking in the sitting area where the couch was positioned so that it faced the television, this mounted on the far wall. On either side were two chairs, these angled so that their occupants could either watch television or engage in conversation without too much trouble. A faux-oak coffee table completed the area.
The wall opposite the television housed a series of bookcases with books, board games and Blackwing's collection of DVDs lining their shelves. A long table with matching chairs filled the space in between.
Only the couch stood out as mismatched, this impossibly plush, with overstuffed cushions and a soft, velvety fabric that changed colour depending on which way it was rubbed. Sometimes, during Dirk's free time, he simply liked to curl up on it and press his cheek against the fabric; drift into a half sleep that left him far more rested than the overly firm mattress of his bed.
He was tempted to do so now, except that his heart was still thundering in his chest, Dirk far too tense to attempt anything resembling sleep. His gaze drifted to the far door, the one he suspected would open to reveal Todd. The door remained stubbornly closed.
There was nothing else for it, Dirk decided, coming fully into the room. He started towards the table, only then noticing that someone had left out one of the board games. New excitement fluttered in his chest. Dirk couldn't remember having ever seen signs of another person. Even knowing the others undoubtedly used this space, not once had he seen traces of their existence.
Upon closer inspection he realized his mistake. This was staging, not oversight. No one had forgotten the game. It had been intentionally set up, Dirk and Todd no doubt intended to play. Staring at the game with a growing sense of unease, Dirk couldn't quite help but roll his eyes. Of all the games they could set up, of course they had to choose the one that involved solving a mystery. Dirk began to understand now their intentions. Todd wasn't just a paid friend. And he wasn't just a privilege Riggins might take away. He was, in fact, a parameter in Dirk's testing, a means to prove Riggins' theory when all else had failed.
"I don't even like Cluedo," Dirk said to the empty room.
As though in response to this pronouncement, the door he'd been waiting on swung open, Todd stepping into the room.
"You're here," Dirk said, stating the obvious. The look Todd shot him was vaguely amused, as though he thought the statement superfluous. Dirk ducked his head, heat creeping into his cheeks. "I mean, you agreed," he clarified. "I wasn't entirely sure you would."
He glanced up in time to catch the look of surprise on Todd's face, Todd schooling his features a second later. He cleared his throat before speaking.
"Sorry… agreed?" he asked, sounding decidedly sheepish.
"Oh, it's alright. I know they're paying you to be here," Dirk said. Todd's look of surprise returned, but Dirk waved it aside. "It's fine. Unless of course you don't want to be here, because then…"
"No, I do," Todd interjected. "I just… I didn't think you knew. Or maybe… I don't know. They weren't really clear on why they wanted me to come."
"Oh," Dirk said, not entirely prepared for that. "So… why did you?"
Todd, he realized, was still standing with his back against the door, his hands thrust awkwardly into his pockets. He was wearing jeans again, that and a grey hooded jumper, frayed drawstrings dangling around his chest. He looked like he'd just woken up, which was unlikely given the hour. Dark circles hung beneath his eyes.
"I don't know," Todd said, shrugging. "I guess maybe I was curious." He ducked his head. "Also, I really need the money."
That, at least, Dirk could appreciate. Not the money part--he didn't understand that--but he appreciated Todd's honesty. Friendships were, after all, built on honesty. He could hardly expect theirs to progress if they built it on a foundation of lies.
"They haven't really told me why they want you here either, although I could hazard a guess," Dirk said, letting out a breathless, self-deprecating laugh. Todd gave no indication of understanding, so Dirk waved it aside.
"It's not really that important. We have, I believe, an hour, and I think they maybe want us to play a game."
He gestured to the table as he spoke, Todd's gaze slipping over his shoulder. The skin between his eyes wrinkled as he furrowed his brow.
"Clue?" he said, sounding less than impressed. This time Dirk's laugh was genuine.
"I've played before," Dirk explained, "though I think having only one player rather defeats the purpose. I'm not entirely sure it'll be that much different with two, but I did agree to their parameters, so…"
"Parameters?" Todd asked, sounding genuinely curious. Dirk nodded.
"For the experiment, yes."
He started towards the table as he spoke, taking a seat beside the library, Miss Scarlet's placeholders directly before him. Slowly, and with a good deal of hesitation, Todd came to join him. He, Dirk was pleased to note, chose a spot beside the ballroom, Mr. Green already set in his square.
"This is an experiment?" Todd asked, gesturing to the board. Dirk nodded.
"Albeit, not a very interesting one. Which is not to say their other experiments are all that interesting, but…"
He trailed off the second he caught Todd's expression, this a combination of incredulity and alarm. Dirk cleared his throat.
"Yes, well… I believe I go first," he said, reaching for the die.
"Hold on," Todd said, still holding Dirk's gaze. Dirk drew back his hand, his fingers curling protectively into his palm. He waited.
Todd seemed torn. His glanced to the board, taking in the already shuffled cards and the tiny manilla envelope sealed for play. Slowly his gaze drifted back to Dirk, expectation as sharp as his confusion.
"How is this an experiment? An experiment for what? And who are they?"
Clearly Blackwing hadn't thought to fill Todd in on the details. That meant Dirk would need to, though he still wasn't sure how much he was allowed to reveal. Say too much and he was certain Blackwing would object. Too little and Todd would continue to stare at him like he was more alien than man.
More importantly, he wasn't sure how much he wanted Todd to know.
"The people running my program… Have you met Dr. Fenchurch?" Todd shook his head. "Well, she heads up the program, and then there's Colonel Riggins and a handful of technicians, though I don't think they really have anything to do with, well, anything really… What I mean is…"
Again he trailed off, this time because it was becoming increasingly obvious Todd wasn't following. Dirk cleared his throat a second time and started over.
"They," he said, emphasizing the word, "are Blackwing, and I'm fairly certain they're CIA, though I'm not really sure what they want from me, except that they like to give me puzzles to solve, hence the game."
Here Dirk gestured, though doing so did nothing to clear Todd's confusion. Todd glanced to the board, gaze narrowing as though trying to see the connection. After a minute, he glanced over his shoulder, his gaze eventually swivelling around to stare at the bookshelves along the back wall.
"You know there are no windows in this room, right?" he asked, the very last thing Dirk expected him to say.
"Yes?" Dirk answered, though he wasn't entirely sure what Todd was driving at.
"And you live here," Todd continued.
This time Dirk nodded. They'd been over this the last time, but apparently Todd wasn't satisfied.
"So they're paying me to sit in a windowless room and play Clue with you because…"
Dirk saw immediately where this was going. He half expected the back door to fly open, for someone to storm into the room, drag Todd out because surely there were boundaries Dirk wasn't meant to cross.
Except the door remained closed, Blackwing obviously more concerned their experiment than they were Dirk revealing too much.
"I think," Dirk said, apprehension coiled low in his gut, "they want to see what happens if they give me a… friend."
He wanted desperately to laugh, to brush it all off as a silly anecdote, something redundant and uninteresting because at least then Todd would think him amused. He managed instead a shaky smile, one he suspected conveyed far more inner turmoil than he was perhaps ready to share.
"Um… why?" Todd asked, still sounding utterly perplexed.
"Oh," Dirk said, the answer he thought rather obvious. "Because I've never had one."
He was making it worse, he realized, all of this talk accomplishing none of the things he'd set out to accomplish. He knew Todd wouldn't leave--Todd was being paid, after all--but he wanted so bad for their relationship to move beyond Todd's paycheque. And yet here he was, one session in, and already he could tell Todd was beginning to regret having agreed to come.
Dirk may have flailed a little. He wasn't entirely sure the display went unnoticed.
"To be fair," he said, "it's not like I get a chance to meet a lot of people. This is the most I've spoken to someone in years."
"And you don't think that's fucked up?" Todd asked. He sounded genuinely concerned. New hope surged in Dirk's breast.
"It's not as bad as it sounds. I mean, you're here. Not…here, here. I mean you're here participating in a study. How is that any different?"
Todd was looking at him strangely. Like he very much thought Dirk was a little dense, possibly a lot naive. He wasn't of course. He knew none of this was normal. But then he wasn't normal. At least, not in the way people like Todd were normal. He wasn't psychic, but he was… something.
"Okay," Todd said, drawing out the word as though gathering his thoughts. "But I don't live here. I have a life outside of here."
He meant it as a point, Dirk knew, and yet Dirk didn't miss the hesitation in his voice. Seemingly oblivious, Todd moved on.
"And to be honest I don't even know what I'm participating in. I show up, hang out with you, and then sit in a room where I look at flashing pictures across a screen."
"Oh!" Dirk said, rather excited. "I know that test. I'm terrible at that one."
The look Todd shot him suggested he was less than impressed.
"But you said you don't have pararibulitis," he said, dangerously low. He deflated a second later, Dirk watching as he sank back into his chair, visibly defeated.
"They're paying me to participate in a clinical study that has, as far as I can tell, no other participants, and aside from the blood workup they had me do before the start of the clinic, absolutely nothing they've had me do seems in any way related to pararibulitis, so to be honest I don't even know why I'm here. And now they're paying me to be your friend. This is officially the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."
He sounded resigned. That and a little annoyed, like this wasn't what he'd signed up for; like the universe was spinning beyond his control, Todd caught in something he didn't understand.
It called to mind Dirk's conversation with Dr. Fenchurch. The one where he'd asked her point blank if Blackwing was manipulating Todd for Dirk's benefit. She'd denied it, of course, and Dirk didn't know her to outright lie, but...
"I'm sure it'll all make sense in the end," Dirk said, relatively confident on that point.
"That's reassuring," Todd said without a trace of sincerity. Dirk chose not to comment. Todd's gaze returned to the board.
"I guess we should play then," he said, still sounding resigned. Something ugly twisted in Dirk's gut.
He hated this feeling. Hated it but knew what it meant. These were the moments that kept Riggins coming back; the reason he couldn't leave. Swallowing heavily, Dirk glanced from the board to the camera positioned above their heads, his heart now beating a furious tempo in his chest. He could practically feel the weight of Dr. Fenchurch's gaze.
"I'm not sure there's much point," Dirk said, letting his gaze drift back to the board, to where the manilla envelope rested at its centre. Todd, he realized, was watching him curiously.
"It's Colonel Mustard, in the kitchen, with the rope," Dirk heard himself say in barely a whisper.
At least, when he played alone, there was no one to shoot him incredulous looks, Dirk having rather hoped Todd's presence might have distracted him from the obviousness of the answer. He watched, detached and numb, as Todd shook his head, smile amused as he reached for the envelope. He pulled out three cards and then set them, one by one, into the space between them.
Colonel Mustard. The kitchen. And the rope.
Todd blinked. Dirk felt a little like crying.
"You realize you're not allowed to look at the cards before you stuff them into the envelope," Todd said, reaching the wrong conclusion.
Dirk huffed a laugh. It came out sounding suspiciously like a sob. Todd didn't appear to notice. He was too busy separating the cards, shuffling each of the decks before choosing one from each. These he stuffed back into the envelope, unseen. The remaining cards he blended together, reshuffled, and set aside.
"There," he said. "Now we're not cheating."
Dirk wanted more than anything to smile, to dismiss the entire event with a laugh and the wave of his hand. Instead he stared at the newly sealed envelope.
Professor Plum. In the billiards' room. With the candlestick.
Dirk swallowed, his hand shaking as he reached for the die.
"This is fairly simple, Icarus," Dr. Fenchurch said.
The exercise room had been cleared of everything save a table and two chairs. Dr. Fenchurch sat across from him, between them a tiny manilla envelope.
"You seemed to have no difficulty during your game with Todd," she pressed. Dirk shook his head.
"I told you, it doesn't work that way. I don't… I'm not psychic. I just get hunches sometimes. But I can't control them. It's not like it's a switch I can turn on and off."
A year ago, he would would have never even considered speaking to Dr. Fenchurch in such a manner. A year ago he wouldn't have spoken to anyone in such a manner. And yet now, caught between exasperation and annoyance, his words were sharp, biting.
He had no idea how he'd guess the cards with Todd. He just had. And what had it earned him? A technician coming into the room to retrieve Todd. Another to bring Dirk back to his room. In hindsight, he should have kept his mouth shut.
"The rules of the game are the same, Icarus. If you don't know, try guessing."
Dirk didn't want to guess. There was too much room for random chance. What he wanted was for Dr. Fenchurch to drop the matter entirely; for her to send Dirk back to his room because it was better to waste away there than endure anymore of… this.
"I don't know," Dirk tried a second time. Dr. Fenchurch continued to stare. "Fine. Miss Scarlet, in the library, with the pipe."
There was nothing about the envelope or the situation to tell him whether or not he got it right. Certainly he didn't have a hunch. Not even a vague feeling. Dr. Fenchurch's disappointment, however, was only too instructive. Whatever was in the envelope, Dirk's guess hadn't come close.
"I can't decide, Icarus," Dr. Fenchurch began, her fingers tapping against the envelope as she spoke. "If you're being intentionally obtuse, or if you truly have so little control over your… ability."
"I'm not being...whatever you said," Dirk hastened to reassure. "And I don't have an ability. I'm not psychic. I'm not anything. I'm just a normal man and I don't know how I knew what was in the envelope before, but I don't know what's in it now and I…"
Dr. Fenchurch held up a hand, effectively silencing him. Dirk drew his bottom lip between his teeth to keep it from quivering. He knew what came next.
"I'm going to have the technician bring you back to your room now," she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand.
There was no point in arguing. No point in begging either, though the impulse to do both was overwhelming. Instead Dirk stood, his hands shaking as he followed the newly arrived technician from the room.
Hours, or maybe days later--it was hard to tell--Dirk lay beneath his bed, torch in hand. He flicked it on, and then off, a beat passing before he turned it on again, one more time, just to be sure. The bulb remained dark, its batteries still dead. In the low light of the room, he could scarcely read the book in his other hand.
This was a familiar punishment, and one of Dr. Fenchurch's favourites. Unlike Riggins, who took things without mercy, Dr. Fenchurch preferred a more nuanced approach. Isolation didn't feel like punishment. Not at first, anyway. That came with time, the relief of escaping their scrutiny soon giving way to antsy boredom that left him climbing the walls, the silence of his room deafening.
It was Riggins who came for him when they finally saw fit to end his exile, Dirk near sobbing with relief. He had no idea how much time had passed, but it felt like eons.
"I'm sorry," he said at once, the words like gravel in his mouth. Still standing inside the doorframe, Riggins shook his head.
"No, Svlad, I'm sorry." He sounded strangely sincere. "I wouldn't have wanted you to experience that. Dr. Fenchurch was… frustrated."
Here he paused, as though not entirely sure how to proceed. Dirk remained where he was, seated on the bed, his back pressed to the wall, his knees drawn to his chest, a familiar position.
"She may have been… overzealous," Riggins continued, Dirk overwhelmed by the gravity of his words. He didn't answer, instead pressing his lips into a thin line in a bid to guard his tongue. Riggins continued to stare.
"If you'd like..." Riggins came fully into the room. The door fell shut behind him, tiny dust motes rising in a swirl of air. "You can see Todd today. Despite Dr. Fenchurch's frustration, we've been… quite pleased by your progress."
In spite of himself, Dirk sat upright, his pulse racing.
"I'd like that," he said, hoping it didn't give too much away.
Riggins gave a nod, tactile permission. Dirk didn't think a week had passed, which meant today was one of Todd's study appointments, their interactions limited to the ten minutes between Todd's arrival and when a technician came to gather him. It was more than he'd expected. More than he'd dared to hope.
He expected Riggins to leave, to offer to collect him upon Todd's arrival. Instead he gestured Dirk towards the door. Dirk startled, the hour, if the hall's light was any indication, too early by far.
And yet what choice did he have? Riggins beckoned, and so Dirk followed, relieved at least to be free of the confines of his room.
Out in the hall, Dirk paused to drag cold, freshly circulated air into his lungs. If Riggins noticed, he didn't say anything. Instead he started them towards the common room, Dirk following a wary pace behind. He knew the route well, and yet, in the still quiet of what he suspected was early morning, Dirk found himself taking in the space with new eyes. They passed doors identical to his own, their windows revealing empty rooms with beds unmade and vacant shelves. Rooms he suspected were meant to house people like him.
How many were occupied? How many others were there? How many like him? Why hadn't he thought to ask these questions before?
The thought did little to ease the lingering tension from his time in isolation. By the time they stood outside the common room doors Dirk found himself bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, tightly coiled energy thrumming beneath his skin.
He half expected to come into the room and find Todd waiting for him, and yet he knew it was too early, Todd's appointment later in the day. He was disappointed, but not surprised to find the common room empty. Riggins followed him inside.
Little had changed. The game was still set on the table, the figures having been moved back to their original positions, the cards reshuffled and piled in the board's centre. Hazy understanding dawned. Dirk's stomach sank.
"You want me to guess the cards," Dirk said, staring at the board. Riggins came to stand on his side, his stance patient, filled with abject certainty.
"I'll make you a deal," he said, Dirk already beginning to deflate. "Play a round with me, and then you can wait here for Todd."
Dirk had no idea what time it was, but it was early enough he knew Riggins was offering a privilege beyond anything he'd offered before. And he got to see Todd, that condition as unspoken as the consequences Dirk would face should he disagree.
Knowing all of this, Dirk gave a reluctant nod.
It earned him a clap on the shoulder, Riggins smiling as though he'd expected nothing less. Slowly he made his way to the table, Dirk following a pace behind. Whether by accident or design--though Dirk knew without asking it was design--Riggins mimicked Todd's position. Resigned, Dirk sat adjacent the library. He let his gaze drift to the already sealed envelope, and knew immediately which cards were hidden inside.
Someone was touching his shoulder.
That last part seemed important, so Dirk focused on the sensation, still too close to slumber to fully register the fingers prodding gently at his arm. It came to him all at once.
The common room. Riggins.
Dirk bolted upright, apology on the tip of his tongue. Too late he registered the figure standing beside him, Todd's eyes wide, his hands drawn protectively to his chest. Dirk's stomach fluttered at the sight of him.
"Todd," he said, genuinely surprised.
"Sorry," Todd said, as though he was somehow responsible for Dirk's current state. Dirk shook his head.
"It's alright, I…"
He'd what? Fallen asleep? Dirk glanced around the room, but aside from him and Todd there was no one else. He remembered his sessions with Riggins; remembered guessing the contents of the envelope four times before Riggins was satisfied. After, Riggins had clapped him on the shoulder and permitted him solitary access to the room. Dirk had retreated to the couch. He had no recollection of having fallen asleep, but a quick glance to the television showed a black screen rolling with credits.
"You're here for your appointment," Dirk said, comprehension dawning.
Todd, who was wearing a somewhat bemused expression, shot Dirk a quizzical glance, as though he wasn't quite sure what to make of having found Dirk sprawled face-down on the couch. Struggling against the first stirrings of embarrassment, Dirk hauled himself up into a seated position.
Doing so made room on the couch, but to Dirk's disappointment Todd opted to claim the chair across from it instead. The vinyl upholstery creaked awkwardly beneath him as he sat, Todd's smile turning apologetic. Heavy silence settled between them. It lasted just until Dirk cleared his throat, Todd taking this as permission to speak.
"So, um, what were you watching?" he asked, gesturing to the TV. Dirk let his gaze drift to the still-running credits, stark white writing on a blackened screen.
"Oh, it's a film called The Pink Panther," Dirk said, remembering the opening shots of Rome. He couldn't quite remember how far he'd gotten into the film, but having seen it before it hardly mattered. "It's about this detective who…"
"I know it," Todd said, interrupting his train of thought. Dirk cocked his head to the side, open question reflected in his gaze.
"This is the old one, right? From the 1960s?" Todd asked. Dirk nodded. "My aunt used to love that movie. Any time my sister and I went to see her she put it on. I've seen it like a dozen times."
Dirk smiled, wide and genuine, not bothering to hide his excitement. Finally, they were getting somewhere.
"You have a sister?" he heard himself ask.
"Yeah," Todd said, sounding startled, as if only just realizing he'd shared the detail. A fond smile spread across his face. "Younger," he explained. "She's still in highschool."
He shifted back as he spoke, the chair creaking a second time. This time Todd ignored it. He turned his body so that they were practically sitting face to face, though he was no longer smiling.
"I don't really see her that much. She still lives at home, and when she's not in school she has gigs, so…"
"Gigs?" Dirk asked.
"Yeah. She's in a band. Plays drums," Todd told him. "She's good. Very punk."
Somehow that didn't surprise Dirk, Todd seeming like the type to have come from a musical family. Still, the coincidence wasn't lost on him.
"So your sister's in a band, and you're in a band… Did you ever play together?" he asked.
At the mention of Todd's band Todd's expression darkened, though he didn't explain and Dirk opted not to ask.
"We used to jam back when I was still living at home, but…" He offered a shrug. "We don't really play the same kind of music, so…"
Dirk had a hunch there was something Todd wasn't telling him, but as most hunches went he couldn't tell what it was. Was it even his place to ask? Friends told each other everything, but despite having bonded over a shared movie experience, Dirk wasn't sure they yet qualified as friends.
"You should bring your guitar sometime," he offered, mostly to displace the tension.
It was apparently exact right thing to say, because Todd's expression light up, faint red staining his cheeks, a smile crinkling his eyes.
"You really want to hear me play?" he asked.
Dirk did, so Dirk nodded, somewhat enthusiastically. Todd ducked his head, his smile growing shy.
"I guess I could ask," he said, though he still seemed utterly flummoxed by the idea. Flummoxed and flattered, Dirk thought, Dirk pleased with himself for the reaction.
He would have given anything to prolong the experience, but all too soon Todd's smile vanished, new tension filling the space between them. Dirk cast vainly for something to say, his gaze drifting back to the now dark television set.
"So is this what you do all day? Watch movies? Sleep on the couch?" Todd asked, Dirk somewhat startled by the question. A long, awkward second passed before Dirk realized Todd was teasing him.
It showed in the slight curl of his lips; the mischievous glint in his eyes. For a moment all Dirk could do was stare, caught in the twinkling of Todd's gaze, his eyes impossibly blue.
Oh, Dirk thought, and then more forcefully, Oh.
He wasn't sure he'd ever been teased. Not like this. Not with well intentioned affection and warmth. The experience of it caught in his chest, a wild fluttering that beat against his breast. It eventually settled in the pit of his stomach, Dirk unable to suppress his smile.
"I told you it wasn't all bad," he said, recalling then their previous conversation. Todd's eyes grew slightly wider, but they didn't lose their intensity. Dirk felt utterly pinned by his stare.
He offered what he hoped was a dismissive shrug, Todd's smile widening, his chest shaking with silent laughter. This, Dirk thought, was progress.
"So are you going to tell me how you managed that Clue thing the other day?" Todd asked, the question hanging awkwardly in the air between them.
Not that it was Todd's fault, the question perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. It wasn't even a surprise, Todd's wonder, before they'd come to retrieve him, anyway, openly on display. The question, then, was inevitable. The problem was how to answer.
"Um… lucky guess?" he tried, though it was obvious Todd didn't believe him. There was no accusation in his gaze, only expectation, as though he knew damned well Dirk was deflecting.
"You mean three lucky guesses," Todd said, sounding amused. Dirk tried not to panic.
"Yes, three guesses. They were just guesses. I'm not psychic or anything," Dirk said, the words coming out faster than he could filter them. Across the sitting area, Todd blinked.
"Who said anything about you being psychic?" he asked. Dirk hesitated. Frantically, he retraced what had been said.
"Um, you did, didn't you?" He could have sworn, the accusation still hovering between them. Todd's gaze grew so narrow his nose wrinkled.
"Did I?" he asked.
Dirk wanted more than anything to laugh it off, to play it as a joke because the conversation, he suspected, had begun as such. But the words wouldn't come. They caught in his throat, Dirk swallowing against them. He'd never been very good at concealing his emotions, so it was hardly a surprise when Todd's expression fell, his earlier amusement replaced by alarm.
"Shit, sorry… I didn't mean…"
Dirk's stomach dropped out beneath him.
"Is that why you're here?" Todd asked.
He leaned forward in his chair as he spoke, the words coming out in a near whisper. Dirk glanced over his shoulder, half expecting an army of technicians to storm the room. He blinked at the firmly shut door for a long minute before letting his gaze drift back to Todd. Another minute passed before he felt capable of speaking.
"I'm not… psychic," he said. "I just get these hunches sometimes. I don't know how they work, and I can't control them, so I have no idea how I knew which cards were in the envelope. I just did."
It was the closest he'd ever come to admitted Riggins was right. It was also the first time he'd openly acknowledged the thing that made him different. And now it was going to cost him Todd, Dirk bracing himself against the taunts of his childhood, ciudat ringing in his ears.
Except, in place of expected taunting, there was only silence. Dirk opened his eyes (he didn't remember closing them) to find Todd still perched on the edge of his chair, his eyes bright with intrigue.
"But that is why you're here," Todd clarified, sounding far, far too excited. Dirk's stomach twisted itself into knots.
"No, wait, I have an idea," Todd said. He shifted a little in his seat, his hand reaching into his pocket. It emerged a second later, a single quarter caught between his middle and index finger. Dirk swallowed against a newly formed lump in his throat.
"I don't think…" he tried, but Todd waved off his concern.
"No, this will be fun. Heads or tails?" he asked, setting the coin on the back of his thumb. Dirk shook his head.
"I really don't think this is a good…"
"Come on, it'll be…" Todd glanced up, his words falling away the second he caught sight of Dirk's expression. Dirk had no idea what his face was doing, but he suspected it revealed far more than he wanted it to.
"It's fine," he tried, but Todd was already shaking his head, the coin disappearing into his back pocket.
"Shit, sorry… I…"
He ducked his head as he spoke, as though thoroughly ashamed of his actions. A flicker of guilt crossed his features, the expression strangely suited to the lines of his face.
"It's fine," Dirk repeated, this time catching Todd's eye. "It's just… It doesn't work like that. And no one ever believes me when I tell them that, so…"
He let the statement hang in the air between them, Todd growing contemplative, as though not entirely sure how to respond. Dirk waited.
"That must be hard," Todd eventually said.
Dirk considered. There were a dozen or so ways to answer that. Because on the one hand all he'd ever wanted was for someone to believe him, for Blackwing to accept that he wasn't what they were looking for and let him go. But on the other, this was all he'd ever known, existence outside Blackwing so foreign a concept Dirk wasn't sure he'd survive it.
"It's not all bad," he said, aiming for levity. "I do get to spend my days watching TV and sleeping on the couch, so…"
The comment earned him a laugh, though he could tell he'd set something in motion, Todd's expression oddly introspective. Dirk wanted to ask, to make sure they were still okay, because today had felt like progress and Dirk didn't want to lose that. He didn't get the chance, though, the door on the far side of the room swinging open, a technician appearing on the other side.
If Dirk's disclosure had breached Blackwing's limits, neither Riggins no Dr. Fenchurch thought to mention it. In the days that followed Dirk dreaded seeing either of them, terrified they'd tell him Todd wasn't coming back, that their experiment had failed, that Dirk was doomed to spend his life alone, Blackwing his eternal prison.
Days passed without mention of it from either of them.
Some of their leniency, he suspected, was due to his performance with the Cluedo envelope, Dr. Fenchurch designing similar experiments, Riggins beaming like the proud parent he wasn't every time Dirk got something right. It earned him a new set of batteries, Dirk coming back one day to find them sitting on his desk, package unopened.
It laid the groundwork for cautious optimism, Dirk oddly hopeful in the days that followed. Naturally, he woke the next morning with a tightness in his chest, all of his senses telling him something was wrong.
Which was rather alarming given that he was secure in his bed, Blackwing undoubtedly the safest place in the universe--Dirk's psychological well being notwithstanding.
There were no alarms, which meant this wasn't a lockdown. Dirk opened his eyes just to be sure, but in place of flashing red there was only unnatural brightness. Dirk blinked until the ceiling came slowly into focus.
The certainty that something was wrong was beginning to manifest as anxiety. Dirk's stomach rolled with it. He pushed himself up into a seated position, and froze.
The door to his room stood open.
The door too his room, which was always, always closed, not to mention locked, stood open.
He half expected someone to appear on the other side, but the hall remained empty, Dirk frozen beneath his covers, his heart beating frantically in his chest.
"Hello," he tried calling, but no one answered. Dirk wracked his brain for what to do next.
Investigating seemed a reasonable course of action, though it took two tries to force himself from the bed. Even then he moved slowly across the room, approaching the open door with heightened caution. It struck him then that perhaps this was another of Blackwing's experiments, designed to see what Dirk would do. The sinking sensation in his gut said otherwise, and yet it was still a shock to peer out into the hall and find it empty.
"Hello?" he tried again, curiosity overriding his fear. No one answered.
He was struck with the sudden urge to leave the room, as though remaining was the more dangerous option. Teetering on the threshold, Dirk weighed his options. At the very least, he thought, he could hunt down a technician, tell someone about his door.
Stepping out into the hall was both the most exciting thing he'd ever done, and the most terrifying. His heart continued to race, a frantic drumming that sounded suspiciously like the thundering of rabbits warning one another of impending danger.
He felt a little like a rabbit then, skittish and uncertain, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. The hall before him stretched on indefinitely, though Dirk knew if he followed it far enough he'd reach the common room. Instinct had sent him in that direction, though he was far more interested in the other doors he passed, these shut tight, locked against whatever had unbolted his. Dirk's uncertainty grew.
He wished he could define it. That he could isolate the sensation and say for certain what it meant. It was a hunch--he knew that much--but unlike the envelope experiment this was vague and ill defined, Dirk operating entirely on instinct. Instinct was telling him to run.
It wanted him back in his room, he realized, the desire to return almost as overwhelming as the desire to leave. But that didn't make any sense. Why would instinct send him out of his room only to have him return? His answer came a second later.
The sound was unmistakable, the heavy tread of boots and a single pair of clacking heels echoing from the corridor ahead. It shouldn't have surprised him. There were still cameras. Both inside his room and spaced evenly along the hall. Of course they'd seen him leave. Of course they knew about his door.
Which meant this was an experiment, one Dirk suspected he'd probably lost. Would it be better, he wondered, if he retreated? If when they arrived they found him already back in his room? He doubted it matter, so instead of turning around Dirk waiting where he was, his hands pressed against his sides, his gaze locked on the ground.
He glanced up only when the others arrived, Dirk finding himself face to face with six of Riggins' soldiers, Dr. Fenchurch at their lead. She sagged with what Dirk could only assume was relief when she spotted him. Dirk offered her a sheepish grin.
"I didn't… I just woke up and it was open… And I didn't…"
"It's okay, Icarus," Dr. Fenchurch said, speaking slowly, as though afraid he might bolt.
"Come on back to your room," she told him, more gentle than he could ever remember her being.
Her touch was gentle, too, this settling on Dirk's elbow. Slowly she led him back to his room, though Dirk couldn't help but notice that the soldiers had gone ahead, scanning the hall as though worried about what they might find.
Dr. Fenchurch was worried, too, Dirk realized. A quick glance in her direction showed tight lines etched into her face, these accentuated by the dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was loose, the first time Dirk had ever seen it as such. Dark waves fell over her shoulders, her complexion startlingly pale by contrast. Given the state of her clothes, Dirk suspected she'd been summoned abruptly. Not an experiment then.
He wanted to ask, but by the time he found the words they reached his room. Dr. Fenchurch ushered him unceremoniously inside, her expression pinched as she closed and secured the door. Dirk stood on the other side, staring out the tiny rectangular window. He watched Dr. Fenchurch bark several orders, half the soldiers moving in one direction, the other half heading back the way they'd come. Dr. Fenchurch followed the second group. The moment she was out of sight the lights dimmed, replaced by pulsing red. A second later the lockdown alarms sounded. Dirk stood, paralyzed by the sound.
Dr. Fenchurch stared at the file sitting open on her desk. The inside cover held a photograph, this of a girl about twelve, the camera's flash reflected in her too wide eyes. She wasn't smiling, her expression entirely blank. Even her gaze was vacant. On first glance, she merely look bored. Closer inspection showed twin strips of tape keeping her eyelids open, her wild, tightly curled hair framed against her pillow. Beneath the girl's photograph was a stamped black square, this marred by a single set of perpendicular lines that intersected in the square's bottom left-hand corner.
Not for the first time Fenchurch wished the girl was conscious. There was still so much about her abilities they didn't know, though they were quickly learning.
"You're sure it's her?" Colonel Riggins asked. He sounded skeptical, but then, he had his favourites and she had hers.
"Positive," Fenchurch told him.
Riggins brought his finger and thumb up to rub at his mustache. Fenchurch took his silence as permission to continue.
"She's experimenting right now. Interfacing with the system, seeing what she can do. The breaches have been too random for anything else. It's… an annoyance, but you can see how it might eventually prove dangerous."
Riggins arched an eyebrow at this.
"Not three weeks ago she released Incubus from their rooms. I'm fairly certain that already qualifies her as dangerous. What if she'd released Marzanna?"
Fenchurch conceded this point with a nod.
"We could try sedating her. Maybe remove her to a remote location." They had options. A shame to lose someone with so obvious a talent, but unless the girl woke up Fenchurch could see no point in allowing her to continue with the program. How were they meant to harness her talents if she wasn't aware she was using them.
"And Icarus?" Riggins asked, Fenchurch not at all surprised, but then, as she'd mentioned, she had her favourites, and he had his.
"Unharmed. He seemed a bit… spooked by the experience. We've told him it was a short circuit."
"He handled it well, though," Riggins said, sounding thoughtful. Fenchurch sighed.
She hated having people in her office. They took up too much space, made the room feel impossibly small. Riggins was better than most, his outward appearance tidy enough to not distract from her clean lines, and yet his presence still grated. How many times would she be forced to endure this conversation?
"He's not ready for the field," she said, knowing full well what came next. "And even if he were we don't have the budget for around the clock surveillance. Besides, if we're to have any hope of bringing Brotzman on board, we need Icarus here."
This Riggins knew, and yet Riggins still looked set to argue. Fenchurch shot him a look, one that made Riggins shake his head, his frustration obvious. The project was his, but she knew as well as he that without her assistance it was doomed to failure.
"I'm going to schedule a polysomnogram," Fenchurch said, forcing the conversation back to Griffin. "In the interim I would suggest switching our more dangerous subjects to manual override. It's a pain, but…"
"Of course," Riggins said, dismissively, as though all of this was a foregone conclusion. Fenchurch waited, hating that he wouldn't let this go.
"How is Brotzman progressing?" he asked after a moment, a clumsy feint. She wasn't sure why he bothered. They both knew the conversation would end up coming back to Icarus. It always did.
"He's not," she said, quite plainly. "His DNA markers were conclusive, and yet, despite his claims, the hereditary illness he suffers from remains dormant. Until it manifests, your theory remains exactly that: a theory."
"Have you considered the environment may be too tightly controlled for his ability to fully develop?" Riggins asked. Fenchurch grit her teeth, wishing then Riggins would stop trying for clever.
"Scott," she said, Riggins' moustache twitching at the use of his given name. "You're too close to this. If Icarus leaves this facility, you won't get him back."
She said it as bluntly as she could, though Riggins gaze never wavered. If anything he seemed amused, as though she were the one blinded by over-investment. Glancing again to the file folder on her desk, Fenchurch tried not to let her frustration show.
"Schedule the polysomnogram, and put Incubus, Marzanna and Moloch on manual override. I want to see how Griffin progresses," Riggins said, Fenchurch somewhat taken aback by the change of topic. Glancing up sharply, she nodded.
"You want to see what'll happen if she gets her door open," she guessed.
Riggins' expression turned thoughtful. He contemplated her carefully, as though debating how much to share. Fenchurch shot him a pointed eyebrow.
"We've been doing this a long time, Martha," he said, the first time she could ever remember him addressing her as such. Her shock was paramount. She could scarcely bring herself to nod.
"Your point?" she asked.
"My point is Icarus has progressed more these past three weeks than he has in years. We can't keep them locked up forever. At some point they need to leave the nest."
"You think we're stifling them," she realized. "You want to see what they can do in the absence of controls."
"I think," Riggins said, sounding quite serious, "this isn't something we can contain. I think in trying to, we've already doomed ourselves to failure."
He stood as he spoke, as though perhaps hoping in doing so he might get in the last word. Fenchurch waited for him to reach the door before responding.
"Have you run this by General Kinsey?" she asked.
The sudden stiffening of Riggins' shoulders suggested he hadn't. Fenchurch smiled at his lack of response.
Granted, he still didn't understand Blackwing's motives, or even what they were getting out of the arrangement. It seemed innocuous enough. Dirk and Todd met. They talked. They played board games. And Blackwing watched. Sometimes, if a session with Todd brought up anything interesting, Blackwing would repeat the experiment, but otherwise Dirk was left to his own devices, his visits with Todd as regular as his meals.
Regular enough, even, to track.
Todd's appointments were three and four days apart, so Dirk developed what he thought was a rather ingenious system. Using his London guide, he kept track of the days using dog-eared pages. Three pages today, which meant it was an appointment day, their interaction limited to the fifteen minutes Todd spent waiting on a technician. Dirk was only a little disappointed.
But fifteen minutes was better than nothing, so Dirk sat on his bed and waited, his legs drawn up and folded beneath him. The dog-eared pages didn't give him a time, but he had enough of a sense of the day's flow to know someone would be coming for him soon.
So Dirk waited.
He waited until his stomach began to rumble, the hour now closer to supper than lunch. That didn't seem right, and he wondered if he'd gotten the days wrong: if he'd folded too many pages or hadn't folded enough. It was entirely possible the entire system was out of sorts.
When someone finally did appear outside his door, it was only a technician, come to bring him food. She left as soon as it was delivered, Dirk's questions ignored. He spent the next few minutes staring at the tray on his desk while trying to figure out what he'd done wrong.
It was entirely possible he'd miscounted, but Dirk didn't think so, which meant this was a punishment, Todd taken away because that threat had been hanging over his head practically from day one. The question then, was why.
Resigned, Dirk climbed from the bed and made his way over to the desk. Supper, when he checked, consisted of too-dry meatloaf and a uniform lump of mashed potatoes. Yellowing, mushy peas completed the meal. Dirk's stomach lurched at the smell.
A single serving of chocolate pudding sat apart from the hot food. Dirk took this and a spoon back to bed. He was halfway through the pudding when a shadow flickered across the door, Dirk glancing up just as Colonel Riggins came into the room. Clutching the unfinished pudding to his chest, Dirk scrambled to his feet.
He was standing by the time Riggins made it through the door, Dirk positioning himself as far from the door as his furniture would allow. With Riggins standing inside the doorway, the room felt impossibly small.
Dirk drew himself to his full height, aware for the first time that he was now taller than Riggins. He had no idea when that had happened, though it hardly mattered. What Riggins lacked in height he made up for in breadth, the width of his shoulders easily twice that of Dirk's. Dirk occupied space, but Riggins filled it, so when Riggins took a step forward, Dirk took one back, his hip colliding with the back of his chair.
"Did I do something wrong?" he heard himself ask. He hadn't meant to, but it was out now and there was no going back.
Riggins' answering smile was vaguely apologetic.
"No, Svlad. I meant to come see you sooner, to let you know that Todd couldn't make it today. I'm sorry it took so long. I got… held up."
Relief was immediately displaced by worry, Dirk's fingers curling around the pudding cup he still held to his chest.
"Is Todd okay?" he asked.
It hadn't occurred to him to think Todd might have been the reason for their missed meeting. Was Todd sick? Was there something wrong with him? Or had he finally decided he was done with Dirk, that Dirk wasn't worth the money Blackwing was paying him.
"A personal matter," Riggins said, which didn't exactly answer Dirk's question. "But he said he'd be here Tuesday."
Some of Dirk's anxiety eased, though his worry lingered. If Todd was coming on Tuesday then it couldn't be serious, whatever it was. More importantly, if Todd was coming on Tuesday then he wasn't done with Dirk. The reassurance did little to ease his disappointment.
He expected Riggins to leave then--there was no reason for him to stay--but Riggins showed no signs of doing so, seemingly content to stand inside Dirk's doorway and stare. Dirk was familiar enough with Riggins' scrutiny that it shouldn't have been awkward, but there was something in his expression, some unnamed expectation that put Dirk immediately on guard. New tension coiled in his chest. Dirk's back straightened against it.
Riggins, on the other hand, stood completely at ease, his hands folded behind his back, his body rounded forward. This was the father-figure Dirk remembered from his childhood. Only the fatigues showed Riggins for what he truly was. New apprehension prickled at the back of Dirk's neck.
"Let's take a walk," Riggins said after a moment.
They were words he'd heard before, usually before Riggins brought him to some new and unpleasant experiment. He'd said something similar that time with the electrodes, the torch offered only after Dirk had balked.
He considered balking again, but it was clear Riggins wasn't expecting an answer. He was already halfway out the door, Dirk left with little choice but to follow.
He knew better than to ask where they were going. Riggins would lead him to where Riggins wanted him to go, and if the universe didn't want him there the universe would find a way to prevent it. Dirk had been through this enough times to know.
So it wasn't a surprise when Riggins led him into the administration wing. That came after, Riggins leading them past the observation rooms, past his and Dr. Fenchurch's offices, to a set of double doors at the end of the wing that Dirk couldn't remember having ever been through.
A swipe of Riggins' keycard opened the doors, Dirk's apprehension now fluttering in his chest. For the first time in his life he wished for a hunch, something, anything to indicate where they were going and why. Nothing came, Dirk left to follow Riggins into a short hall, this leading to a sealed door, above it a glowing red exit sign. Dirk's breath caught in his throat.
"They still don't see the possibilities," Riggins said as swiped them past the door and into a tight stairwell.
There were sixteen steps between landings, the stairs doubling back on themselves so that as they climbed they wound a slow circle. Dirk had vague memories of riding in an elevator shortly after arriving at Blackwing, the pit of his stomach sinking as they'd fallen. At the time, he couldn't have said how far down they'd gone, but now he had his answer. Four flights. Sixty-four stairs.
The top flight ended at another door, this an exact duplicate of the one below. By the time they reached it Dirk was breathless; Riggins slightly winded.
"They think they can contain you here, that the science of it is a worthy enough goal." He shook his head, his keycard coming out to grant them escape from the stairwell. Dirk's heart drummed in his chest.
"They don't see the practical applications. The good you could do."
He was speaking, Dirk realized, not for Dirk's benefit, but for his own, as though perhaps convincing himself this was the right course of action. It made Dirk curious, some of his trepidation fading as Riggins led them out into the hall.
This hall was considerably brighter than the halls below, and yet the light was different somehow, muted in a way Dirk didn't understand. It was a strange contradiction. Riggins didn't appear to notice.
He led them to where the hall dead-ended at a junction. To the right the hall stretched on indefinitely, countless doors lining the walls. To the left the hall ended abruptly, at a set of frosted glass doors that reflected and pooled exterior light. Dirk's hand began to tremble.
"I…" he got out, but Riggins was already moving, towards the glass doors. Dirk followed on shaky legs.
Upon reaching the doors, Riggins paused, his keycard held in his hand. He turned abruptly to meet Dirk's gaze, his expression oddly placid. If this was a test--an experiment--Riggins gave nothing away.
"Dr. Fenchurch has never understood. This isn't something we can quantify. I'm not even sure it's something we can replicate in the lab. But if you are what I think you are, then it's worth taking some risks."
He said all of this as though looking for Dirk's approval, but all Dirk could do was blink and stare. He had no idea how to interpret Riggins' statement, and yet the light filtering in through the frosted glass was light he remembered from his childhood, Dirk trembling with anticipation.
"You're letting me go?" he asked, hopeful. Riggins' expression fell.
He seemed… disappointed, though Dirk couldn't tell if it was the question or the assumption. After a minute, Riggins shook his head.
"That is beyond my power," he said. "Nor would it be safe. You are, however, old enough to have some of your privileges extended."
He scanned his keycard as he spoke, so that by the time he had finished speaking the door was swinging open, Dirk assaulted by the scent of damp earth.
It transported him immediately, Dirk back at his father's estate, the lonely hours of his childhood spent roaming the woods behind his ancestral home. He could see them now, trees stretching across the horizon, damp moss growing around their bases. Inhaling sharply, Dirk followed Riggins through the door.
And found, not a forest, but a tiny courtyard, this ringed on all sides by windowless concrete. It was as though the walls of the compound contained a sanctuary of green. It was by far the most beautiful thing Dirk had ever seen.
"Oh," he said, not bothering to hide his surprise.
This late in the day, the courtyard was wreathed in shadows, but Dirk could still trace the path that wound its perimeter. There was only the one door, and from it a second path snaked its way into the courtyard's centre. There two benches sat nestled inside a cluster of trees, one facing the other. The sound of trickling water carried from the back of the yard.
Away from the tight press of suffocating concrete, with a tiny patch of greying sky open above him, Dirk could feel the pull of the universe in a way he hadn't in years. It felt as though someone had tied invisible strings to his chest and was dragging him forward, the urge to scale the walls and follow the universe's call overwhelming. Dirk's knees buckled. Riggins caught him by the elbow.
"What is it?" he asked, eager in a way that explained this decision. Dirk's mood evaporated.
He should have known. Blackwing's motives were always ulterior. It would never be anything other than an experiment. One more test. One more answer. The endless cycle of his life, Dirk little better than a lab rat.
Suddenly angry, Dirk pivoted, wrenching his elbow free from Riggins' grasp as he turned. He spun until they stood, face to face, Dirk's gaze watery, Riggins' carved from patient marble.
"You brought me here thinking you could… control this, but you can't, because it doesn't work when I'm locked in a cage. And now what? You think you can give me some books, some extra time in the common room, fresh air and a friend and I'll…"
"Easy, Svlad," Riggins said. "I'm not the enemy here. I only want what's best for you."
Straightening so that he didn't feel quite so smile, Dirk lifted his chin.
"I want to go back to my room," he said.
He was fairly certain he'd crossed a line, that Riggins would punish him, that he'd lose Todd and his books and his time in the common room, but Dirk didn't care. He'd thought that when they'd given him the guidebook, it meant they were planning on letting him go. He saw now that that wasn't going to happen, that all of this--Todd, the guidebook, the courtyard--were tools of manipulation, Riggins still utterly convinced Dirk was something he wasn't.
To his surprise, Riggins merely nodded, looking disappointed but not upset. He led Dirk back into the building, the invisible strings cut the moment they passed through the door, the universe shrouded from him the second they reached the stairs.
The technician turned left instead of right. Dirk's stomach sank.
They hadn't discussed his outburst, not since Riggins brought Dirk back to his room. In the days that followed, he'd seen only Dr. Fenchurch. If she knew about the courtyard she hadn't brought it up. Four dog-eared pages later, Dirk was fairly certain his appointment with Todd stood.
Now he wasn't so sure.
"Sorry, aren't we going to the common room?" Dirk asked. The technician didn't answer.
His pace was clipped, the set of his shoulders a good indication of his mood. He'd been sent to carry out a task and intended to do so in the most expedited manner possible. That meant no conversation, Dirk ignored.
It was easy enough to guess where they were going, their route horribly familiar. Dirk dragged his feet, but kept up, the pair of them winding their way through the halls until the double-doors into the administrative wing came into view. Now the question was obvious: Dr. Fenchurch, or Colonel Riggins.
Most days he'd hope for Riggins, but today he wished for Dr. Fenchurch, Dirk still shaky with nerves where Riggins was concerned. He'd all but yelled at the man, and while Riggins hadn't yelled back, his disappointment was obvious. Dirk didn't particularly want to know how far that disappointment extended.
The universe, however, rarely cared what Dirk wanted, so it was hardly a surprise to find Riggins waiting for them on the other side of the doors.
He was standing just outside his office door, utterly at ease, a neutral smile on his face. Dirk's steps faltered, but he didn't slow. The technician stopped just inside of Riggins' reach. He handed over his clipboard.
Riggins took it without a word. He signed off on the transfer with practiced ease, his smile fixed. Dirk watched the proceedings with barely concealed apprehension. He could read nothing in Riggins' expression.
"Thank you," Riggins said, handing back the clipboard.
Dirk watched it trade hands and then ducked his head, his gaze seeking out one of the irregularly placed gold squares set into the pattern of the tile. He didn't glance up again until the technician's footsteps had faded, Dirk drawn by the weight of Riggins' gaze.
"Are you ready?" Riggins asked, as though none of this was out of the ordinary. Dirk hesitated. He had no idea how to answer. He wasn't even sure Riggins expected one.
Apparently not, it seemed, Riggins pivoting on his heel, leading Dirk, not into his office, but towards the double doors at the end of the hall.
"Where are we going?" Dirk asked, despite knowing the answer.
"Contrary to what you might think, I'm not trying to manipulate you," Riggins said as he led them into the stairwell. "You've made remarkable progress, Svlad, and I'm proud of you."
It didn't answer Dirk's question, but it was the only explanation Riggins seemed willing to give, so Dirk bit his tongue and followed Riggins up the stairs. There was no mistaking where they were going now, Dirk oddly resigned. He followed Riggins to the top of the stairs, and then into the short hall where, at the juncture, they turned left, Riggins leading him to the frosted glass doors that led out into the courtyard.
"I don't understand," Dirk said, feeling profoundly tired. This would be so much easier if Riggins simply told him what he wanted.
"I'm offering you… freedoms, Svlad," Riggins said. Dirk shook his head.
His confusion must have shown, because Riggins sighed, his expression long-suffering.
"You have an hour," he said, gesturing to the door. "I hope the trust I've placed in you is warranted."
Several very important pieces clicked into place.
The first being that Riggins intended to leave him alone. The second being that in all likelihood Todd was waiting for him inside. Finally, there was the distinct possibility--one Dirk didn't want to examine too closely in case he was wrong--that the courtyard was too complex an environment for overt surveillance.
Freedoms, Riggins had said. But what did that mean?
He didn't get a chance to ask--wasn't sure he wanted to know--Riggins ushering him through the door, his key card already scanned.
Dirk spotted Todd immediately. He was sitting on one of the benches, looking lost and more than a little confused. He glanced up at the sound of the door, relief flooding his features. A wide smile broke out across his face. Dirk returned it.
It was brighter today than it was on Dirk's first visit, the hour earlier, the courtyard filled with dappled sunlight. It was warm, too, almost too warm for the grey sweats Dirk wore inside the climate controlled building. Todd was wearing a t-shirt today, this splashed with colour, a ring of smiling bears swirled at its centre. He'd paired it with ripped jeans, though the dampness at his brow suggested he too felt overdressed.
"Todd," Dirk said, feeling the universe's pull. Todd's smile grew. It accentuated the dark circles under his eyes.
"Are you sick?" Dirk asked.
"What? Oh, no, sorry. I'm just… tired. And sorry about last week. I had… Something came up."
He stood at Dirk's approach, Dirk only then noticing the guitar case propped on the seat beside him. Sharp excitement spiked in his chest.
"You brought your guitar," he said, stating the obvious. Todd appeared oddly startled.
He glanced over his shoulder, as though he'd forgotten the instrument entirely. A second later he shook his head, soft laughter spilling past his lips as his gaze swung back to Dirk.
"Yeah, my acoustic," he said, as though Dirk would understand. When Dirk didn't answer, he elaborated. "I usually play electric."
"Ah," Dirk said, not wanting to admit he didn't know the difference.
Todd seemed to take this at face value. He glanced again to the guitar, and then let his gaze drift around the courtyard, the resulting silence broken only by the soft echo of trickling water.
"This is weird, right?" Todd asked when he was done taking in their surroundings. The words were practically whispered, as though he was worried someone might overheard. Dirk leaned instinctively towards him.
"A little," Dirk admitted. "This is only my second time here."
That seemed to catch Todd off-guard, so Dirk offered what he hoped was an apologetic shrug.
"Okay," Todd said, sounding anything but certain. "I thought maybe it was because I asked if I could bring the guitar."
That was a possibility Dirk hadn't considered before. He considered it now. The idea had merit, but then Blackwing's motives were never very clear. Riggins' even less so.
"I don't mind it," Dirk admitted, and he didn't. The air was warm and sweet and thick with scent. The feel of sunlight, what little reached them through the canopy of trees, was pleasant in a way that still reminded him of his father's estate. Todd, if his nodding was any indication, agreed.
"Do you want…" he gestured to his guitar.
"Of course," Dirk said, giving an enthusiastic nod.
Todd ducked his head at that, faint colour seeping into his cheeks. It might have been the heat, but Dirk didn't think so, his stomach fluttering pleasantly at the sight.
Together they moved to sit on the benches, one across from the other, Todd fumbling with his guitar case, Dirk trying to decide what to do with his hands. Eventually Todd pulled a battered, worn guitar from the case and set it on his lap.
"Sorry, I didn't want to lug my amp all the way out here," he explain as though apologizing for the instrument's condition.
"I don't mind," Dirk told him.
"It's easier with the van," Todd continued, still stuck on his amp. "We had trolleys and carts for transport."
Todd trailed off, his expression growing dark. Dirk might have missed it, except that Todd had worn the exact same expression the last time they'd discussed his band.
"Had?" Dirk asked, not missing the past tense.
Todd, fiddling now with the tuning pegs, went strangely quiet. After a minute or so he shook his head, a bitter laugh falling from his lips.
"I don't even know why I'm embarrassed," he said, pausing to tune several strings. "The band broke up. It was a long time coming. That's why I wasn't here last week. It… it didn't end well."
He punctuated the point by playing a succession of chords. It was nothing Dirk recognized--though he would have been hard pressed to recognize anything--just a gentle strumming that occasionally made Todd frown and go back to fiddling with the tuning pegs.
"I thought I could salvage it. I mean, we've been having problems for a while, but I still thought…"
Here he chuckled, the same dark, bitter sound from before.
"You know what, never mind. You got any requests?"
He glanced up, his expression open as he met Dirk's gaze. Dirk considered. He hadn't the foggiest notion how to answer. Something told him Todd didn't want to talk about the band, but Dirk knew only a handful of songs by name, and none of them were the sort he could picture Todd playing.
"Can you play me something you've written?" he asked, hoping it was appropriate. Todd seemed a little startled by the question, but his smile was genuine, colour having returned to his cheeks.
In lieu of answering, he began to play.
It was softer than Dirk was expecting, a slow melody that filled the space between them. It was as though the very air had come alive, sound pulsing in his bloodstream. Todd had closed his eyes, so Dirk did the same, tipping his head back to take in the sun's warmth. He could still feel the distant pull of the universe, amplified outside Blackwing's concrete walls, but sitting across from Todd, the sound of Todd's guitar spilling around them, Dirk had no desire to follow it. He was, for perhaps the first time in his life, content.
Perhaps this was what Riggins' meant by freedoms, Dirk rarely afforded so tranquil an afternoon. Todd played continuously, flowing from one song to the next. Soft melodies became upbeat tempos became rage-fueled refrains. Dirk listened intently, surprised and a lot disappointed when their hour came to an end.
"You're very good," Dirk said as Todd packed away his guitar. This time Todd's flush was scarlet, his skin damp with the heat.
"Yeah, well…" Todd said, ducking his head.
"No, I mean it. And I'm sorry about your band, but maybe it happened for a reason. Maybe the universe wants bigger things for you."
Todd, who was busy stringing his case over his shoulder, a technician waiting for him by the door, seemed to consider this.
"Is that a prediction?" he asked. Dirk shot him a glare, though it lacked any real heat.
"It's a sometimes things happen for a reason, and a thank you. That's the first time I've ever heard live music."
Todd's expression softened at that, though he seemed utterly incapable of responding. He opened his mouth several times, and yet nothing came out. Eventually he shook his head.
"I'll see you on Friday," he said, starting towards the door. Halfway there he thought better of it and turned around.
"Thanks," he said, uncharacteristically shy. "I had a really good time."
Dirk's breath caught at that, his heart lurching in his chest. He gave a curt nod, not trusting himself to speak. He held Todd's gaze for what felt like a full minute, Dirk wishing then they'd had more time. There were so many things he wanted to say. So many things he'd meant to ask. But Todd was leaving, the technician ushering him out the door.
Later, alone under his bed, the scent of damp earth still clinging to his clothes, it occurred to him that he wanted more than just weekly appointments. He wanted to see Todd everyday. To know sit with him and talk with him. And he was beginning to think, if today was any indication, that Todd felt the same, that Dirk was more than just a paycheque. That maybe, just maybe, Dirk was a friend.
It was as though she knew. She knew about the courtyard. She knew about the guitar. She knew everything. Dirk wasn't entirely sure why he'd thought otherwise.
He assumed now the cameras he'd missed were simply well hidden, that she'd wanted him off his guard. For all he knew she'd orchestrated the entire thing, Todd a weakness she fully intended to exploit. Dirk shifted awkwardly in his chair.
There was a stack of files sitting on her desk, files intentionally brought out--Dr. Fenchurch never left anything to chance. The one on the top of the pile clearly showed his name, ICARUS - Cjelli, Svlad printed in bold black lettering.
"How are you, Icarus?" she asked, Dirk once again on his guard.
"Fine," he said, more question than answer.
"And how are things with Todd?" she continued, Dirk not at all surprised.
Still, he felt himself stiffen, his back going ramrod straight, his hands balling into tight fists.
"He's… fine?" Dirk tried, not entirely sure her angle.
"Are you enjoying your time with him?" Dr. Fenchurch asked. If Dirk had hackles, they would have been standing on end.
"Have I done something wrong?" he asked, his default assumption these days.
Dr. Fenchurch's gaze was sympathetic, but whatever she had to say on the subject was lost to the sudden blaring of alarms. They were so unexpected Dirk was halfway out of his chair before he realized there wasn't a bed to crawl under. Instinctively, he looked to Dr. Fenchurch for instructions. In doing so he caught a brief flare of panic in her eyes.
It vanished immediately, Dr. Fenchurch mastering herself in an instant. She waved Dirk back into his seat. Dirk sat, somewhat reluctantly. He was still half tempted to circle around her desk and crawl beneath it, but Dr. Fenchurch shot him a look so Dirk stayed where he was while she started for the door.
"Remain here, Icarus," she said when she reached it. She didn't wait for a reply, disappearing into the hall, the door pulled shut behind her. For a long while Dirk stared at the empty space she'd left behind, waiting for her to return.
He chastised himself as soon as he realized he was doing it. He was no longer a child, and there was nothing to indicate he was in any danger. Strangely enough, he felt perfectly safe. Whatever was happening clearly didn't involve him.
He let his gaze drift back into the room, taking in the sterile decor, the orderly bookcases, Dr. Fenchurch's empty chair, before finally seeking out the files stacked neatly in the centre of her desk. The one on top still boldly proclaimed his name, so Dirk reached for it, and froze. A month ago he wouldn't have occurred to him to snoop. A week ago he wouldn't have dared.
Dr. Fenchurch would be furious if she knew he'd gone through her things, and yet the file was his. It had his name on it. Surely he was entitled to know what it said. A quick glance to the door showed it still firmly shut, the muffled droning of alarms echoing from beyond. Reassured, Dirk reached for the file, his fingers tracing the length of his name.
Doing so caused the file to shift slightly, enough to reveal the file beneath it, Dirk not at all prepared for finding someone else's name.
GRIFFIN - Mills, Diamond
He'd assumed, upon first arriving, that the files were all his, a lifetime in Blackwing custody surely enough to warrant a stack of files. To learn otherwise was staggering. Without thinking, Dirk dragged the pile towards him and began flipping idly through the names.
ICARUS - Cjelli, Svlad
GRIFFIN - Mills, Diamond
INCUBUS - Martin, Michael | Cross, Mateo | Vogel, Eric | Gripps, Benton
MARZANNA - Curlish, Bartine
MOLOCH - Wilder, Mona
CHARON - Chou, Ben
Dirk froze, the files shaking in his hands. He could almost convinced himself he'd hallucinated it, but when he flipped back there it was, Todd's name amongst the others. Dirk stared. A dozen questions sprang to mind.
The foremost being why Todd had a file at all.
And why had Dr. Fenchurch left it sitting on her desk? Had she meant for him to see it? For a brief moment, the universe aligned, Dirk utterly certain there was a connection.
His first impulse was to pull the file from the pile and leaf through it, the answers, he suspected, contained within. He didn't get the chance, sudden silence echoing from behind the door. Dirk's attention snapped towards it. He had just enough time to return the files to their original position before the door swung open, Dr. Fenchurch entering the room.
"My apologies, Svlad," she said, the first time he could remember her using anything other than his designation. Dirk sat up a little straighter, his hands folded neatly in his lap.
"Now, where were we," she continued, her gaze falling to the files on her desk. Dirk forced himself to breathe. "Ah, yes. Todd. How have your sessions with him been going?"
She sank into her chair as she spoke, her expression oddly placid.
"I… Sorry, why do you want to talk about Todd?" Dirk asked. He knew he was taking a risk, but this couldn't be coincidence.
"Are you uncomfortable talking about him?" Dr. Fenchurch asked. Her gaze had narrowed, but it wasn't suspicion, Dirk left the distinct impression she expected to gain something from his answer.
"No, I just…"
"Your sessions with Todd were conditional on you agreeing to certain parameters, were they not?" Dr. Fenchurch interrupted. Dirk nodded.
"Then I would ask again, how are those sessions going?"
There was no point asking if this was a condition, the answer fairly obvious.
"Good," Dirk said. "They're going very good. Todd is… He's very nice."
"That's good," Dr. Fenchurch said. "Would you say the two of you are becoming friends?"
Dirk's heart, which had at some point taken up residence in his throat, now throbbed incessantly.
"Yes? I think so. It's hard to say. I've never actually had a friend before, so I'm not really sure, but… Yes. I'd say yes."
He had no idea if that was the answer she was looking for, and Dr. Fenchurch gave him no indication either way. She merely continued to stare, her gaze thoughtful as she considered his response.
"Has he talked to you about his personal life at all?" she eventually asked. Dirk considered.
It was an innocuous enough question, but there was something in the way she asked it that set Dirk's teeth on edge. He briefly considered not answering, but like her initial question Dirk suspected this too one of Blackwing's conditions.
"He told me about his band," Dirk said. "Oh, and he has a sister."
"Anything else?" Dr. Fenchurch asked. She sounded disappointed.
"Sorry, he doesn't really share a lot. I mean, we're still just getting to know each other, so…"
"That's fine," Fenchurch said. She offered him a thin smile before adding, "I'm glad you're getting along," almost as an afterthought.
Her smile lingered, a beat passing between them, Fenchurch still staring, Dirk trying very hard not to squirm in his seat. Something was off, but he couldn't quite pinpoint what. Whatever it was, it felt distressingly like a hunch. A hunch, Dirk suspected, with Todd at the centre of it.
He would have given anything for a chance to see what was in the file, but the universe had other plans, a technician appearing inside the door. Dr. Fenchurch's gaze swivelled towards him.
"You can take him back to his room now," she said. The technician nodded. Dirk stood without needing to be asked. Faint approval coloured Dr. Fenchurch's gaze.
The thought wouldn't leave him. Safely ensconced under his bed, Dirk stared at the underside of the mattress and tried to understand why a file with Todd's name on it felt less like revelation and more like impending doom.
How long had they known each other? A month? He thought back to that first day, to the shock of seeing another person in the common room. A study, Todd had said, though he hadn't recognized Blackwing's name and when Dirk had asked he'd mentioned something about nerves.
What possible use could Blackwing have for someone with a nerve disorder?
He'd assumed, of course, that Todd's presence was meant for him. A manipulative tool, or perhaps incentive. Dirk was never sure. Both maybe, though either way the outcome was the same. But what if he was wrong? Why else would Dr. Fenchurch have a file in Todd's name?
It begged a more insidious question: why had she left it sitting on her desk, out in the open for Dirk to see?
He hadn't had the chance to examine the file's contents. Perhaps it was empty, the file itself yet another experiment; another test. Squeezing his eyes shut, Dirk began to wonder if this was all some elaborate hoax, designed to drive him mad.
The question plagued him long past when he should have slipped out from under the bed to crawl beneath his covers. He ended up falling asleep where he was, his apprehension manifesting as dreams.
In them his room was bathed in red, his door standing wide open. Unlike the waking world, here there was no hesitation, Dirk slipping from under the covers without a second thought. He floated rather than padded into the hall, where the light was crimson, so dark each breath dragged colour into his lungs.
The alarms were silent, the hall strangely empty, devoid of even a technician. There was only the endless red, a gentle pulsing that following Dirk all the way to the common room, where he found Todd waiting for him, a battered electric guitar in his lap.
"I needed electricity," Todd explained. He held a frayed cord in his hands. Red light pulsed around him.
"I don't think you should…" was as far as Dirk got before Todd bent over to plug in the amp. Bright sparks lit the air. Todd stiffened, his jaw clenched against the current. Dirk watched, helpless to do anything. Overhead, the lights flickered and then fell dark. Todd dropped the cord.
"It's fine," Todd said, as though nothing had happened. "It happens all the time."
The scent of burning flesh hung in the air.
Dirk woke with a gasp.
For a long while he lay beneath his bed, his breath coming in great, heaving gasps. Dampness trickled from the corner of his eyes. Dirk couldn't bring himself to wipe it away. He couldn't remember the last time Blackwing had inspired a nightmare. Not since he was a child.
It left him more shaken then he'd willingly admit, Dirk too terrified to move; too tired to do anything save stare at the underside of the mattress and wonder what it all meant.
It was far too early for this, Fenchurch decided. She'd already had a coffee, but she needed another. Seated across from her, Colonel Riggins looked far too awake.
That was the soldier in him. He'd been with Blackwing so long now it had undoubtedly been decades since he last saw the field, and yet a soldier he remained, every inch of him pure Army. It showed in the way he sat, back ramrod straight in his chair. It showed in the clean lines of his uniform. In the precise order of his office.
Unlike hers, which she very consciously kept devoid of personal mementos, Riggins' office was a historical archive. His walls were littered with personal achievements, framed newspaper clippings marking the passage of his career. They ended twelve years ago, about the time of Blackwing's inception. Commendations filled the remainder of the wall.
Even his bookshelf told a story, technical manuals intermixed with literary classics. Fenchurch counted no fewer than six copies of Melville's Moby Dick. Beside the bookcase, an American flag stood proudly on display.
"We could try inducing stress. See if it triggers an attack," Fenchurch said, well aware she was wading into the unknown.
She remembered Ester, though she'd only met the woman briefly. Nowhere near long enough for her or her condition to have left an impression. That wasn't the case for Riggins. Ester was one of Riggins' first, possibly even the reason for Blackwing's inception. Losing her had clearly had an impact, Riggins' obsession with her nerve disorder bordering on manic.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Riggins' said, his expression clearly troubled. Fenchurch shook her head.
"Then what would you suggest? Because we've brought the boy in, and so far he's shown no signs of having extrasensory perception."
It was a question she fully intended Riggins to answer, but she held up her hand when it looked as though he might, needing then to say her piece.
"I know he shares genetic markers. They all do. But we haven't proven those markers have anything to do with their abilities. We are currently monitoring forty-two subjects, and aside from Incubus, not one of those subjects shares anything in common with the other forty-one. You've found another person who claims to have pararibulitis, but aside from a mutated genome what proof do we have?"
It felt good to finally voice her doubts. To talk about someone other than Icarus. She'd agreed to bring in Brotzman on the condition they could dismiss him if his testing proved inconclusive. They were now weeks in and still had nothing to show for it.
"Have we considered this isn't the right environment?" Riggins asked, an old argument. Dr. Fenchurch rolled her eyes.
"So your plan is to turn them loose in the world, monitor them from afar. Tell me again how we're supposed to do that."
A coffee with Aspirin. That was what she needed. Fenchurch brought a hand up to rub at her temple.
"Not all of them," Riggins said.
Fenchurch couldn't help it. She barked a laugh.
"No, just Icarus and Brotzman. The ones you've deemed safe."
The lines of their mandate were growing increasingly unclear. Fenchurch no longer knew what they were trying to accomplish.
"I'm not opposed to your plan," Riggins said. His gaze had drifted, locked now on the case that held his many medals. Amongst them was a Vietnam service medal. How old was he, Fenchurch wondered. She would have thought he was closer to her own age, but maybe not.
"Good," Fenchurch said, certain hers was the only one that would work.
"He'll need to come in voluntarily," Riggins continued, though they'd already discussed this. Still, Fenchurch nodded.
"A few weeks," Fenchurch said, giving her timeline. "Icarus is already attached, and from what I've seen of their interaction, Brotzman is quite taken. He has nothing outside of here. He's estranged from his family. He has no friends. He's dropped out of school. Lost his apartment. I believe Icarus could convince him."
A brief flicker of discomfort passed over Riggins' features, but he didn't argue.
"You've set the groundwork, then?" he asked. Fenchurch nodded.
"He didn't read the file, but he's seen it. As I said, a few weeks. I would suggest we prepare the room next to his, for additional incentive."
Riggins didn't answer, but he didn't object either, and while she knew he disapproved, the choice wasn't exactly his. Any objections he had he could raise with General Kinsey. Until she heard otherwise, she would assume their mandate stood.
"Was there anything else?" she asked, too abrupt by far but the morning was waning and she still desperately needed that coffee.
"No," Riggins said, and for a moment Fenchurch thought he might actually dismiss her. He remembered himself a second later, though the curt nod he offered her was much the same. Fenchurch tried not to bristle. Instead she rose steadily from her chair and strode from the room.
Twelve years, she thought. Twelve years and what did they have to show for it? Another subject, as unpromising as the rest. Shaking her head, Fenchurch headed for the elevators, the cafeteria six floors above her head.
His thoughts kept coming back to the file on Dr. Fenchurch's desk. Not for the first time he wished he knew its contents.
The not knowing settled in the pit of his stomach, a growing nausea that was altogether too familiar. He let the hunch take root, terrified of what it might mean and yet needing an answer. He could see the shape of it now, but for all that the impression remained vague.
This was nothing like looking at the back of a card. It was nothing like trying to solve a puzzle box. It was certainly nothing like trying to guess the contents of an envelope. This was Todd. Thinking about it rather made Dirk want to crawl back under the bed and never come out.
Not doing so took considerable effort, Dirk curling his hands over the side of the mattress to keep from moving. He let his gaze drift to the window, several long minutes passing before a technician finally appeared. Dirk rose steadily to his feet.
It would help, he realized, if he knew why Todd was here. They hadn't talked much about Todd's study. Certainly not enough for Dirk to get a scope of it. He knew only that Todd had pararibulitis, though even that didn't tell him much. The detectives in his books were always finding clues, gathering data, putting things together to figure out an answer. Dirk had assumed, erringly perhaps, that he could accomplish the same merely by just… doing whatever. As that approach appeared not to be working, Dirk suspected he needed a plan.
He wasn't good at planning. Or rather, on the rare occasions when Blackwing had asked him to strategize Dirk had failed miserably. It was hard to know where to start, Dirk used to letting others do his planning for him. Blackwing decided everything: what he ate; when he slept; what he wore. Without their steady influence he was… a leaf on the wind.
Even now his actions were dictated, Dirk having no choice but to follow the technician down the hall. They were headed towards the common room, hardly a surprise given that today was one of Todd's appointments. Dirk still found himself oddly disappointed.
He pushed it aside, focusing instead on the flurry of activity in what was normally a deserted corridor. Rarely did Dirk see more than one technician at a time, and yet today there were several. They moved in and out of one of the empty rooms that stood alongside Dirk's. A quick glance inside showed a technician making a bed. The hair on the back of Dirk's neck stood on end.
He wanted to ask, but the technician leading him seemed intent on ignoring it, his pace quickening as he led them past the room. The next corner found the corridor deserted, Dirk almost convinced he'd imagined the flurry of activity.
Almost, but not quite, uncertainty still pooling in his gut, Dirk thoroughly on edge by the time they reached the common room doors.
Inside, he found Todd seated on the couch, no guitar this time--though for a brief moment Dirk saw the image from his dream, dream-Todd once again caught in an electric current, Dirk paralyzed by fear. It was gone just as quick, Todd staring up at him, his expression entirely open.
"Hey," he said, smiling brightly.
Dirk meant to respond in kind, but all he could see was the file sitting on Dr. Fenchurch's desk, new worry spiking in his breast.
"Why are you here?" Dirk asked, not bothering to hide his alarm.
Todd's expression shifted to one of bewilderment, his gaze narrowing sharply.
"Um, because I have an appointment?" he said.
"Sorry, I mean…" Dirk forced himself to stop and take a steadying breath. "I meant your study."
Cognizant of the cameras, the words came out in a near whisper. Todd leaned forward on the couch as though trying to hear. In three short strides Dirk was beside him, his glance darting once to the door before he claimed a seat at Todd's side. Todd seemed startled by their sudden proximity, but he said nothing, his expression now thoroughly confused.
"You said you were here for a study on pararibulitis, but that you were the only participant," Dirk explained. Todd's expression didn't clear.
"You said pararibulitis was a nerve disorder," Dirk pressed.
"And?" Todd asked.
"And what does Blackwing want with a nerve disorder," Dirk said, reasonably certain he'd made his point.
Except, Todd was openly staring now, a brief flicker of worry appearing in his gaze. Dirk could only imagine what he must look like, leaned in close, his body angled to block the camera above their heads, his words coming out in a strained whispered. He tried desperately to convey the urgency of Todd's reply with a look. Todd, however, remained lost.
"Sorry, can you start again. I know you told me who Blackwing is, but I don't see how they're related to my study. Did something happen?"
Yes, Dirk wanted to say. They have a file with your name on it and I don't know what it means.
Instead he shook his head.
"It's… I don't know. A hunch, maybe. But I need to understand why you're here if I'm going to figure out what it means."
That got Todd's attention, excitement replacing some of his tension.
"Wait, is this your… thing?" he asked. Dirk was beginning to regret having mentioned it.
But he still needed to know. He still needed to understand, so he gave a curt nod, ignoring the way Todd's eyes lit up with excitement.
"You said there were no other participants. That all they do is make you watch flashing pictures on a screen."
Dirk knew the test. There was a prediction component to it that tied into subliminal memory. It was one of Dr. Fenchurch's favourites. Riggins thought it useless. Dirk tended to agree.
"That's not all they have me do, but I definitely haven't met anyone else yet," Todd said, Dirk seizing on the new information.
"What else?" he asked.
"I don't know… I guess one time they had me try to guess these cards. And another time they…"
"Cards," Dirk interrupted, his heart now racing in his chest. Todd nodded.
"Yeah, they had pictures on one side and…"
Dirk nodded his understanding.
"They've done a few scans. A thing with electrodes. I don't know... It's weird, I guess."
If earlier his hunch was vague, it now had defined edges. Dirk still didn't understand it--not fully--but he was beginning to get a more complete picture, his hands shaking as the pieces began falling into place.
"Todd," he said, quite seriously. "I don't think you should trust them."
There was something in Todd's expression that didn't quite match up. He looked… confused, but also guilty, as though there was something he wasn't saying. Dirk considered. Did he know? Was he part of Blackwing's plan? That didn't seem right, and yet…
He didn't get a chance to ask, the lights above them flickering, a tiny surge followed swiftly by the shrill screaming of all too familiar alarms. Dirk sagged back into his seat, annoyed, but Todd bolted upright, panic reflected in his features.
"Shouldn't we…" he gestured to the door, his words lost to the ringing of the alarms. Dirk shook his head.
"It's fine," he said. "This happens all the time."
After so long whispering it hurt to shout, but at least Todd heard. He still crossed the room to check the door, returning to Dirk's side only after finding it locked.
"What do you mean it happens all the time?" he asked when he reached the couch. He was still standing, his body taut with tension. Dirk shrugged.
"The system keeps malfunctioning. I don't know why. At first it only happened occasionally, but lately it's been happening every couple of days. They'll fix it shortly."
He gestured to the couch as he spoke, a invitation that Todd considered before accepting.
It wasn't as loud here as it was out in the hall, but they still had to shout, Dirk's only consolation the continued presence of the overhead lights.
Almost as soon as he thought it they flickered again, Dirk chastising himself for tempting fate. He began a slow countdown in his head, getting to six before the lights flickered and fell dark, Dirk reaching three before the emergency lights filled the room with red. Todd stiffened beside him.
He cast a glance in Dirk's direction, relaxing only when he found Dirk unaffected by the change. They had, if experience had taught him anything, several minutes before Blackwing restored ordered. Long enough, Dirk thought, to press his warning.
"Todd," Dirk said, struggling to speak around the sudden lump in his throat. Todd leaned slightly towards him, as though understanding Dirk's reluctance to shout.
"I don't think you should come anymore," Dirk said.
As soon as he said it he knew it was true. Todd wasn't safe here. He couldn't pinpoint the how or the why but he knew it was true, just as he'd known Colonel Mustard had committed murder in the kitchen using the rope.
For the briefest of moments Dirk thought Todd might argue. He looked… hurt. Sad in a way Dirk wasn't expecting. It was gone just as quick, Todd's features hardening, his gaze growing narrow.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" he asked. Dirk struggled with where to begin. The beginning, he supposed.
"I told you before that I get these hunches. And they're very rarely wrong, but they're rarely ever right either. Or at least, I never really understand them, not until I see them in hindsight. Now I don't know anything about pararibulitis, other than what you've told me, but I'm not sure that's why you're here. I think…"
Dirk shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself. Todd, at least, was listening intently. Dirk went back, started at the beginning.
"I thought you were here for me. I don't mean…" He gestured vaguely, trying to deflect Todd's incredulous expression. "I mean I thought they intended to use you to manipulate me, but I'm not so sure about that anymore. Dr. Fenchurch, she's the woman in charge of my program… She had a file on her desk, with your name on it, and I don't know why, but I think maybe it means you're in danger."
It was the best he could offer, the haziness of his hunch not much to go on. But how to explain something that amount to instinct? Especially when Todd was looking at him like he thought Dirk might be crazy.
"I…" Dirk tried, but Todd shook his head.
"Look, I appreciate that you're… concerned? But…" Here he paused, a brief flicker of uncertainty passing over his features. He glanced briefly away, his gaze sweeping about the room, taking in the pulsing red lights, the still-locked doors. The alarms were still audible, though as close as they were they were easy to ignore. Todd's gaze flickered back, his expression hardening.
"Here's the thing," he said, speaking low enough Dirk had to strain to hear. Dirk didn't miss the reluctance in his tone.
"...I don't actually have pararibulitis," he continued, wincing a little as he said it. "I had an aunt who had it, and I knew it ran in the family, and I figured… you know… I could make a quick buck. I'm honestly surprised I passed their medical screening. It was a shot in the dark."
He averted his gaze as soon as he said it, as though not wanting to see Dirk's expression. Dirk wasn't quite sure why. He was fairly certain he wore a look of stunned surprise. He tried desperately to slot this new information into everything he already knew.
"So… I just needed the money," Todd said.
This time he glanced up, embarrassment, guilt and something Dirk thought might be regret reflected in his gaze.
"That still doesn't make sense," Dirk decided, and it didn't. Even if Blackwing didn't know Todd was faking pararibulitis, they had to know something. "And I still think you shouldn't…"
The reiteration was lost to sudden silence, the alarms ceasing abruptly, red fading to black. A second later the overheads came back on, Dirk's gaze falling immediately to the door. He had just enough time to put a reasonable about of space between him and Todd before the door swung open, Todd beckoned into the hall.
He hadn't slept. Not since the night before last, yesterday's meeting with Todd still too fresh in his mind.
The alarms had sounded twice more, Dirk beginning to think they'd go on ringing indefinitely. In hindsight he almost wished he'd let Todd believe them an anomaly. Perhaps then Dirk might have convinced him. As it was, he had no idea whether Todd would return. Part of him hoped he wouldn't. The rest of him dreaded the possibility.
There were no technicians in the hall today, the room Dirk had seen them preparing hidden behind a locked door. He had no idea what it meant, but the churning of his stomach continued unabated.
It got worse the closer to the administrative wing they got, so that by the time the technician deposited him outside Dr. Fenchurch's office faint nausea had climbed its way up his throat.
Dirk swallowed against it, and stepped into the room.
Dr. Fenchurch sat in her chair, her hands folded neatly on her desk. There were no files today, Dirk unsurprised but disappointed. He wasn't expected them--was still a little worried she knew he'd gone through the others--but a part of him had idly hoped for a second opportunity, a chance to read Todd's file cover to cover, to understand what it was they wanted from him.
Terrified she would see all this written on his face, Dirk averted his gaze.
Doing so brought the corner of the room into view, Dirk somewhat startled to find Colonel Riggins standing alongside the filing cabinet, watching Dirk intently.
It was easy to imagine then they had heard his conversation with Todd. Dirk could think of no other explanation for Riggins' presence. Perhaps they had a listening device embedded in the couch, or sewn into Dirk's clothing. Perhaps despite all Dirk's caution they knew everything, today the day they took away Todd.
Any other day he might have apologized. Today Dirk took the chair across from Dr. Fenchurch's desk without comment. He kept his spine straight, his hands folded in his lap. Calmly meeting Dr. Fenchurch's eye, Dirk waited. Riggins pushed off the filing cabinet and came to stand in the middle of the room.
"How have you been, Svlad?" he asked, as though they hadn't spoken two days ago; as though something terrible had happened.
"Fine," came Dirk's tentative answer. Riggins smiled.
"I imagine you're probably wondering why you're here," he said.
"I suppose," Dirk answered. There was a line. He knew that much. He just didn't know where it was drawn. Give too much and Riggins would take it away. Not enough and Riggins would assume he needed incentive. Neither option held any appeal.
"You're here because we need your help," Riggins continued.
He moved again as he spoke, coming to perch on the side of the desk. Dirk let his gaze drift to Dr. Fenchurch, and found her watching the proceedings with barely contained apathy. Dirk's gaze slid back to Riggins.
"My help?" he asked. Riggins nodded.
"You're an adult now, Dirk," he said, the first time Dirk could ever remember him using Dirk's chosen name. Alarm bells sounded in Dirk's head. They sounded suspiciously like the ones that accompanied the pulsing red lights.
"I don't understand," Dirk said. Riggins shot him a patient smile.
"You're an adult, and we can't keep you here forever. At some point you need to move into the field. You have the capacity to help people. To use your gift for good. But…"
Here he paused, his gaze pinning Dirk in place.
"You need to show us you can be trusted with this responsibility. I know you, Dirk. I know you want to help people."
Dirk was nodding before he registered doing so. Of course he wanted to help people. He wanted… something. Something that wasn't this endless monotony. He wanted to do something that mattered, like before, when he was a child, all of those cats finding their way home. It marked the first and only time he could ever remember feeling useful.
And yet, despite that, he didn't trust Riggins. He didn't trust Dr. Fenchurch or Blackwing. Whatever they wanted, he knew without a doubt he wasn't going to like it. This was manipulation. Dirk was sure of it.
Riggins, however, continued unimpeded, as though convinced of Dirk's cooperation.
"We have reason to believe your friend Todd may be in danger."
If Riggins proclaiming him an adult had triggered bells, the mention of Todd triggered sirens. Dirk sank beneath them. Riggins continued unimpeded.
"Has he told you why he's here?" Riggins asked.
Pararibulitis, Dirk thought while shaking his head. He wondered if Riggins knew, if Blackwing had already found out Todd was faking the disease.
"He has a set of genetic markers that put him at risk of contracting a fairly horrible disease. If he doesn't have symptoms now, he will, and I can assure you they won't be pleasant."
That was news. News Dirk suspected Todd didn't have. He'd mentioned the blood work; mentioned the disease running in the family. Dirk very carefully kept his mouth shut.
"We can help him, Dirk. We can help ensure the disease stays dormant, but in order for that to happen we need to bring Todd into a safe environment."
Again Riggins paused, his expression softening as he shot Dirk a smile.
"You like Todd, don't you, Dirk?" Riggins asked.
Not trusting himself to speak, Dirk nodded.
"And you do want to help him, don't you?"
Again Dirk nodded.
"If he was here, you could see him everyday," Riggins said, finally coming around to the point.
It should have surprised him, but it didn't, Dirk acutely aware of the progression that had led him here. His stomach was still churning, which meant this wasn't the end. It felt, however, like a very significant crossroads, a moment he'd reflect back on and possibly regret.
"Why are you telling me this?" Dirk asked. "You can bring him in anytime you want. What does this have to do with me?"
There was something Riggins wasn't telling him. Blackwing didn't bring people in to keep them safe. They had their own agenda, a purpose beyond the false promises and barely concealed threats Dirk remembered from his childhood. So why involve Dirk? Why not simply show up in the middle of the night, bundle Todd into a car the way Riggins had bundled Dirk, the dim lights of his father's village disappearing out the rear window.
"I'm afraid it's not that easy," Riggins explained.
So far he'd done all the talking, Dr. Fenchurch watching from behind her desk. She cleared her throat now, both Riggins' and Dirk's gaze swivelling towards her.
"I know this is hard for you to understand, but we would very much like it if Todd's… involvement here remained voluntary. We're not asking you to do anything you'd be uncomfortable with. We're simply asking you to talk to him, convince him this is for the best."
In one of those rare moments where the universe aligned and Dirk understood its purpose, he was struck with sudden understanding. They needed Todd to volunteer, because unlike Dirk whose caregiver had willingly remanded him, Todd was an adult whose disappearance would not go unnoticed.
"This is for the best, Dirk," Riggins said in his most imperious tone. Dirk didn't need a hunch to know he was lying.
Just as he didn't need a hunch to know he'd never agree. Riggins, he suspected, already knew this, his expectation tempered by resignation. Why ask, then, Dirk wondered, sure he was missing something. It was becoming an increasingly common theme.
He opted not to answer. There seemed little point. Riggins knew, the hard edge of disapproval shaping his jaw. His lips grew thin, his eyes hard, Dirk well aware this would earn him punishment where nothing else had. Still he kept his tongue.
"I'm disappointed in you, Svlad," Riggins said, Dirk not missing the use of his old name. "I do hope you reconsider. For Todd's sake if not your own."
The threat was unmistakable, and yet Dirk still refused to speak. He kept his silence right up until a technician arrived to return him to his room.
"Will I still be allowed to see Todd?" he asked, having risen from his chair. Riggins was back against the filing cabinet, Dr. Fenchurch watching him over her desk. Neither deigned to answer. Dirk couldn't say he was terribly surprised.
Dirk sat, legs crossed beneath him, his London guide open on his lap. Seven of its pages were folded, and still no one came.
The question, then, was simple: was this punishment, or had Todd heeded his warning? The former seemed more likely, and yet Dirk desperately clung to the latter. All Todd had to do was stay away and he would be safe.
The afternoon dragged on, each passing hour carrying him further and further away from the possibility of retrieval. With it came mounting anxiety, the not knowing a gnawing pain in his gut. What would they tell Todd? Would Riggins turn up in Dirk's place? Dr. Fenchurch? Or would they find someone else. One of the other Blackwing subjects. How many others were there?
Strange to think he hadn't questioned it before, Dirk supposing Blackwing would have told him if it was relevant to know. It wasn't relevant now, but he was still curious, more so because he wanted to know who was meant to take his place; whether they could be persuaded to talk Todd into staying.
He remembered then the room down the hall. The ones the technicians had been preparing. Was that meant for Todd? Did they intend to secure him inside a room, endless boredom interspersed with trips to the common room? The courtyard? Would they allow Dirk to accompany him?
Probably not now, and for the first time since refusing Riggins' offer Dirk found himself contemplating regret. He'd wanted… what? To spare Todd Blackwing's scrutiny? And now Todd had lost the one person who might have warned him away. In hindsight it was obvious he should have lied; should have accepted Riggins' proposal under false pretences. A single act of subterfuge might have spared Todd an unwanted existence.
Please have not come, Dirk thought frantically.
Supper, when it came, was the same grey mush from the week before, this interspersed with soggy bits of orange and green. Shepherd's pie, a technician told him when he asked. The meal was neither pie-like nor suited for eating in a field.
He mostly picked at it while pushing the food around on his tray, his stomach still churning with nerves. A flicker outside his window drew his gaze, though it was only the technician come to collect his dishes. Riggins didn't turn up until the next morning, and by then Dirk had almost convinced himself Todd was safe.
"Good morning, Svlad," Riggins said, dragging Dirk's chair into the middle of the room.
His gaze flickered to the underside of the bed, to where Dirk's flashlights and London guide now lived. It was a subtle manipulation, but not one that went unnoticed. Riggins knew, the items now privileges Dirk stood to lose. It rather answered Dirk's question concerning Todd.
"Todd sends his regards," Riggins still said, the warning unspoken. "We told him you were ill."
Here Riggins paused. He leaned forward, hands coming to rest on his knees, the perfect image of a soldier, everything he said and did now carefully calculated.
"He has a sister, you know. Younger. Too early for the disease to have manifested, but I am curious to know if she shares her brother's markers. It's hereditary, you know. Pararibulitis."
"What do you want?" Dirk asked. Any other circumstance he might have marvelled at how far he'd come, the thought of standing up to Riggins something he wouldn't have contemplated even a month ago.
"I want you to reconsider," Riggins said. "This is…"
He trailed off, more flustered than Dirk could ever remember seeing him. Gone was the soldier, in his place a middle aged man, haggard and worn by frustration.
"In the beginning, I wanted so bad to believe there was something more," he said after a moment, Dirk half expecting another story about a purse. Riggins' gaze, however, was downturned, his eyes sunken in his head.
"Early on, before I met you, I met a woman. She had what Todd has. She was deemed too old for the program, but she came in, for a while, and I was convinced she was a part of it. A piece of the puzzle, and if only I could gather enough of them I'd see the big picture. Todd… His genetic markers… It's the piece I've been looking for. All of this…"
He gestured, taking in the whole of Dirk's room; the whole of Blackwing maybe.
"All of this could be over. I don't want to keep you here, Dirk. That was never part of the plan. But you're part of the pattern and we don't have all the pieces. Help me bring in Todd. It will benefit him as much as it will you. He has nothing. No one. Here… Here he has the chance to be something. To make a difference. You both do."
The purse story was better, though only because Dirk hadn't heard it before. Riggins' lies were all too familiar, Dirk well aware he'd meant only a small fraction of what he'd said.
And yet… He still needed to warn Todd. To convince Todd to get away. And he wasn't going to accomplish that sitting in his room, so Dirk did the only thing he could: he gave a tight nod, reluctant but convinced. Riggins slumped in obvious relief.
"I knew you'd come around," he said, smiling broadly.
Despite his smile, Riggins' eyes were still pinched, Dirk suddenly aware this was a test. He had at best one visit, a single chance to convince Todd to flee. The weight of the task settled heavy in his chest. Dirk exhaled against it.
He was careful, though, not to let it show, to keep his gaze neutral, his apprehension suppressed. Riggins was still watching him, showing no signs of leaving.
"When can I see him again?" Dirk asked. He'd missed their hour, fifteen minutes nowhere near long enough to say all that he had to say.
"I'll see if I can schedule something for this afternoon, tomorrow perhaps. We told Todd we'd reschedule when you were well. He was… quite concerned."
It was a relief, at least, to know Todd hadn't spent their hour sitting on his own--worse still, he hadn't spent his hour sitting with Riggins or Dr. Fenchurch--though he still would have preferred Todd having not shown at all. Dirk gave another nod, this one slightly more enthusiastic, though his heart was now racing in his chest. Riggins held his gaze another minute, and then stood.
"This is the right decision, Svlad," he said after he'd returned Dirk's chair. Still seated cross-legged on the bed, Dirk stared up at him unflinching. "I know you don't see that now, but you will. It really is for the best."
And just like that he was gone, Dirk afforded another chance, his only concern now how to convince Todd to run while making Blackwing think he was trying to convince him to stay.
True to Riggins' word, he arranged for Todd to come that afternoon. It was still somewhat of a surprise, Dirk having assumed Todd would have had his own schedule to work around. Apparently not, Riggins' words coming back to him then.
He has nothing. No one.
He knew about the band, and that Todd was no longer close with his sister, but aside from that he'd assumed Todd had an ordinary life. He had freedom, which was more than Dirk had. Surely someone with the option to do anything would take advantage of it. Surely they wouldn't want to come here.
As much as he hated to admit it, part of him was desperate to see Todd again, even knowing the danger Todd faced. He needed time to piece together what he was going to do, but more than that, he needed to see Todd.
Perhaps in doing so he might figure out how he was going to pull this off. He'd been operating on instinct when he'd agreed to Riggins' plan, but he hadn't yet worked out how he was going to convince Todd to leave while simultaneously convincing Riggins he'd asked Todd to stay. In theory it was easy. In practice… not so much so.
What he needed was a way to convey a message to Todd. Something Riggins and Dr. Fenchurch couldn't overhear. Something their cameras might miss. Something he already had on hand.
It took mere minutes to catalogue his possessions, they were so few in numbers. He had his flashlight and his books. Nothing else. No pens. No paper. No way to write a secret message. Anything that might have been useful had been taken from him long before Todd's arrival.
He wished now he'd thought to ask for a book on Morse Code, though then he'd have to trust that Todd could understand it. A moot point, but given his options it was the best he…
The idea came to him so suddenly it might have been a hunch, save that no hunch had ever served him. And yet it was an idea. He might not have had a book on Morse Code, but he did have books. Numerous books. And in them were words, of which he only needed two.
He started with his London guide, in part because he'd already mentioned it so maybe they'd believe he was simply using it to try to convince Todd to stay. It took a matter of minutes to find what he was looking for. In the end, he marked four separate pages.
They're and Listening on the first, followed by don't, Stay, and then run
The context was off. Run, for example, was taken from from a passage on train schedules, but as plans went Dirk thought it was fairly good one. All that remained the arrival of a technician.
He didn't have long to wait.
The technician who came for him wasn't one he recognized. It wasn't entirely unprecedented, but it did give him pause. Not that he had any choice in the matter. Unless Riggins or Dr. Fenchurch countermanded it, the technicians were in charge. Dirk followed his out into the hall.
If the technician noticed the guidebook, he didn't say anything. Dirk hadn't bothered to hide it. This wasn't the first time he'd brought a book with him to the common room, but it was the first time he had something to hide, Dirk careful to keep his expression neutral, his gaze locked straight ahead.
It was only after their second unexpected turn that Dirk realized they weren't, in fact, going to the common room. Dirk was tempted to ask, but a third turn made their destination obvious. The question, then, was simple: Riggins, Dr. Fenchurch, or the courtyard.
Despite knowing he was going to see Todd; despite being convinced Riggins trusted him to obey, Dirk still held himself tense until they were through the administrative wing doors and past Dr. Fenchurch's and Riggins' offices. He didn't let himself relax until they were through the doors at the end of the hall, the wild fluttering of Dirk's heart settling as they came into the stairwell.
The route to the courtyard was exactly as he remembered it, Dirk following the technician up the stairs and then into the narrow hall. By the time they reached the courtyard's doors, Dirk had grown somewhat eager. He still wasn't sure this was going to work, but for the first time in longer than he could remember, he had a good feeling about it.
He still forced himself to proceed with caution, waiting for the technician to key him inside before stepping through the doors. Todd was already waiting.
There was no guitar today, Todd alone on the bench. He stood as soon as he spotted Dirk, his expression oddly relieved. Dirk shot him a nervous smile. The pull of the universe was as present today as it was the previous two times he was here, but Todd still commanded all of Dirk's attention.
"Hey, are you okay?" Todd asked, coming forward. Dirk hazarded a glance over his shoulder, but the technician was nowhere in sight, the door shut firmly behind him.
"Fine," Dirk told him, remembering then Riggins' words.
We told him you were ill
"I… it was just a headache," Dirk explained, wary of contradicting Riggins' lie. Todd, if his expression was anything to go by, didn't believe a word of it.
It bode well for the rest of their conversation, Dirk needing Todd to hear one thing and believe another. Unfortunately it didn't bode well for the cameras, Dirk in desperate need of a distraction.
"I wasn't sure they'd let us come back here," he said, gesturing around the courtyard. This late in the afternoon most of the sun was blocked by building, but a narrow band lingered, pale yellow sunlight trickling through the canopy of leaves.
He knew immediately he hadn't fooled Todd, though thankfully Todd didn't call him on it. Instead he ducked his head, his expression gone slightly sheepish.
"I asked, actually," he said, Dirk momentarily too stunned to do anything but stare.
Certainly it was a surprise, and not an unpleasant one, but the second Todd said it Dirk realized he knew. The knowledge settled low in the pit of his stomach, a curling warmth that felt oddly reassuring. Dirk's fingers curled around his book, the movement attracting Todd's gaze, though he didn't comment.
"Have you seen it?" Dirk asked, his free hand sweeping out to encompass the whole of the courtyard. Todd blinked, as though surprised by the question. Eventually he shook his head.
It was somewhat amazing how fast Todd caught on, especially considering Dirk was trying to communicate with only a look. It felt a little like destiny, as though they were always meant to be friends, this the universe's will. Knowing that made all of this a little easier.
"I haven't had a chance to explore," Dirk said. He waited for Todd to join him before starting back towards the door.
There was no getting through it, of course, Dirk lacking the necessary keycard, but here the path to the courtyard's centre intersected with the one that rounded its perimeter, Dirk turning them abruptly to the right.
There were still no visible cameras. Nothing to indicate they were being watched, but Dirk knew they were. The knowing prevented him from dragging Todd aside and telling him everything, Dirk moving them slowly instead, this just another sessions, Blackwing's objections firmly within their reach.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" Todd asked when they made their first turn. Dirk was pleased to note he spoke under his breath, his posture rigid with nerves. Dirk kept them moving.
All the way to the back corner, where a water feature sent water cascading over carefully stacked rocks. Its gurgling had accompanied Todd's guitar playing the last time they were here.
A rock bench sat alongside it. Dirk perched on its edge, twisting so that his back was to the corner, the most likely spot for a camera if Blackwing's pattern continued to hold. Todd's expression grew incredulous, but at a gesture he sat down. Dirk set the guidebook on his lap. Todd lifted a pointed eyebrow.
"You didn't bring your guitar," Dirk said. He spoke in a normal tone, but against the trickling water anyone listening in would have been hard pressed to hear. Seeming to understand, Todd inched a little closer.
"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked. Dirk ignored the question.
"I was hoping you might. Bring your guitar again, I mean," he said.
As he spoke, he flipped the guidebook open to the first marked page, pointing out the first word. They're. Todd read it and frowned. Dirk's finger slipped further down the page.
In an instant Todd's confusion cleared, replaced by mild alarm that he soon covered by ducking his head.
"I didn't think to ask, but if you want I can bring it next time," he said, seeming to catch on. Hands shaking, Dirk turned to the next page.
"Apparently there's all sorts of live music in London," Dirk said, still making idle conversation, but also needing an excuse for the guidebook. He still had his back to the camera's most likely location, but that didn't mean there weren't others. As he spoke, he pointed out the words Don't and Stay, Todd startling ever so slightly.
He mastered himself a second later, seeming to understand what Dirk was trying to do.
"I'm going to live in London after I'm done with my program," Dirk continued, remembering then the naivety that had marked his life pre-Todd.
"I remember. You mentioned that the first time we met," Todd said.
He darted a hand out as he spoke, finger landing on the page. Dirk watched as he traced through the words, settling on a single word: no. His gaze, when Dirk glanced up, was fiercely determined. Dirk flipped to the next page.
"I was thinking," Dirk continued, speaking a little louder now for the cameras. "It would be nice to have someone to travel with. You know, when you're done your program."
Todd, who seemed to understand they were having two conversations, gave a curt nod.
"I can't," he said, though Dirk suspected he didn't mean London. The look he gave Dirk was pointed, though for the life of him Dirk couldn't fathom its meaning.
Dirk let the guidebook fall closed on his lap, the pages still marked. Without a word he handed it over, hoping Todd would reconsider.
"In case you change your mind," he said, silently willing Todd to comply. Todd shook his head, but he accepted the guide, drawing it close to his chest.
Later, Dirk would wonder what went wrong. How Todd could possibly ignore his warnings. He'd done everything save beg Todd to stay away, and yet Todd looked resolved, as though he fully intended to continue their meetings. It was so frustrating Dirk thought he might scream, but at the same time he was oddly moved, Todd the first person who'd acted like a friend; the first person who'd actually wanted to stay.
Leaning back onto the stone bench, Dirk tried to ignore the part where him doing so felt like impending doom.
Riggins came to see him the next day. He was wearing his fatigues--Dirk wasn't sure he'd ever seen him in anything else--but his moustache was freshly trimmed, shorter than he usually wore it. Dirk had no idea what it meant.
Nothing, he decided, sitting primly on the edge of his bed. He felt lost without his London guidebook, but Todd needed it more than he did so he supposed it was worth the sacrifice.
"I'm proud of you, Dirk," Riggins said, Dirk's stomach sinking as much at the pronouncement as at the use of his chosen name.
"Um… thank you?" Dirk said, utterly confused. Riggins' smile felt condescending.
"Todd has agreed to increase his sessions. We feel this is an encouraging first step, and I believe we have you to thank for it," Riggins explained.
Even expecting it Dirk's features fell. Too fast to escape Riggins' scrutiny. By the time Dirk recovered, it was too late.
"You haven't changed your mind, have you?" Riggins asked. Frantically, Dirk shook his head.
"Of course not, I…"
"Good," Riggins said, the unspoken warning perfectly clear. "I knew we could count on you."
Dirk forced a smile. There was some consolation, he supposed, in knowing Todd had only agreed to increased sessions and not an inpatient program. The thought did little to curb his disappointment. He was barely present for the remainder of their conversation, Dirk answering Riggins' questions with monosyllables, false smile still plastered across his face.
It wasn't until later, after Riggins had left the room, after Dirk was once again safely ensconced beneath his bed, that Dirk tried to see the positive. Clearly he'd failed, but additional sessions meant additional time and time, Dirk suspected, was something they desperately needed.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd participated in an experiment. Weeks perhaps. He might even be tipping into months. It was as though his sessions with Todd gave Blackwing all the data they needed. All the more reason, Dirk thought, to keep Todd from their grasp.
He found Todd waiting for him on the couch, Dirk's London guide held firmly in his lap. He wore a vaguely apologetic expression, as though he knew and understood Dirk had warned him away and yet couldn't quite bring himself to leave. Dirk knew he ought to be disappointed, but something in him fluttered at the thought. Without really meaning to, a soft smile broke across his features.
Todd didn't say anything, but he patted the spot next to him on the sofa, Dirk immediately crossing the room to sit at Todd's side. It was closer than they usually sat, their shoulders brushing together, warmth spreading the length of Dirk's arm. Todd immediately showed him the guidebook, Dirk beginning to understand.
He let his gaze drift up, to where a camera was mounted in the ceiling. It wasn't directly over the couch, and he knew the resolution wasn't fine enough to pick up the actual text, but they still needed to be careful. Todd acknowledged this with a faint nod.
"I've been thinking about what you said," Todd said. "About London. And I realize I probably should have explained."
He caught Dirk's eye as he spoke, Dirk understanding immediately they were now holding two separate conversations. In any other circumstance, it might have been thrilling, the idea of the two of them conspiring together, Dirk and Todd against Blackwing and the world. Instead, he grew wary.
"Travel hasn't really been an option for me," Todd said as he opened the book. He angled his body so as to block the guidebook from view. Blackwing would know they had it, just not what it said.
"It's kind of hard to plan travel when you're worrying about having an attack," Todd continued. It took Dirk several seconds to realize he was talking about the pararibulitus. This, then, was entirely for Blackwing's benefit. Todd emphasized the point by flipping to a marked page.
Expecting to have Todd point out specific words, it was somewhat surprising to find Todd had written in the margins, his looping scrawl legible, though barely.
Are you in danger? the first margin asked. Instinctively Dirk shook his head. Todd shot him a look. Reluctantly, Dirk offered a nod. He would have given anything to explain, to clarify the kind of danger he meant, because he suspected Todd meant an entirely different kind, but short of seeking out words to reply, Dirk had to trust Todd to understand. Todd flipped a page.
Is there anything I can do to help? was written in the next margin. Emphatically, Dirk shook his head.
Not only was there nothing Todd could do, Todd attempting to do anything would only put him in further danger.
"But I was thinking," Todd said, flipping again to another page, Dirk needing a moment to trace back to their original conversation. "If this study provides results, if they come up with some sort of treatment, or even a cure, then, yeah, I'd love to go to London with you."
Even knowing Todd was deflecting, there was something decidedly sincere in the way he spoke, as though he really would love to travel with Dirk. Dirk puffed up at the thought, hoping Todd would assume the display entirely for the cameras. The beginnings of a smile suggested otherwise. Dirk willed himself not to blush. He glanced down at the page instead.
I can't just leave you here, was written in bold, blue ink.
At first, Dirk didn't understand. He couldn't fathom why Todd would worry about leaving him here when he'd always been here. But then he remembered Todd's first question. Are you in danger warmth flooding him at the thought of Todd caring more about Dirk's safety than he did his own.
But if Todd cared enough to stay, then surely Dirk cared enough to make him go. Reaching into Todd's lap, Dirk flipped back to one of his marked pages, don't stay scattered amongst a single page. Todd shook his head.
"I don't really have a lot of friends," Todd said, Dirk not entirely sure which conversation they were having. "And my parents… Things aren't good there either. So I guess maybe you're the only person I have in my life these days, so, yeah, we should totally hang out more."
As he spoke, he flipped again to another page, this one with several words highlighted, Todd having added extras in pen. It took Dirk a minute to piece together the message, his breath catching the moment he did.
I'm not leaving without you.
There were so many things he wanted to say. So many things he needed to say. Arguments he needed to make. But there weren't enough words in the book, not to convey the thoughts currently swirling in his head. If he had a pen he might have written them down, but writing them down he suspected would draw attention and they were already walking a fine line. He tried then to convey everything he was feeling with a look, but Todd's gaze remained firm, his resolve unwavering.
"Todd, I…" Dirk began, but whatever else he might have said was lost to the flickering of lights, Dirk knowing instinctively what came next.
Todd, too, seemed to understand what was happening, his last experience only a week or so prior. The past few days had been quiet, Dirk almost beginning to think Blackwing had solved whatever glitch was causing the overrides. Apparently not.
Right on cue the lights fell dark, bright red filling the space a second later. Dirk held his breath, waiting on the alarms. They didn't come, silence ringing through the common room instead.
And yet, it was a silence that felt relatively secure, Dirk not sure if it was instinct or a hunch that told him the cameras, too, had fallen dark. Either way he decided to risk it, Dirk leaning into Todd's space, his mouth pressing into the shell of Todd's ear.
"You need to stop coming," he whispered, not bothering to keep the urgency from his tone. "They want to bring you into the program. They'll keep you here. Locked up. And they won't let you leave. Todd, they won't ever let you leave. Please, I'm begging you…"
It was as far as he got before the alarms sounded, far louder than Dirk remembered them being. He glanced up sharply, his gaze falling immediately to the door he'd never been through, Dirk startled to find it swinging slowly inward.
He expected to find someone on the other side side. A technician. Riggins. But there was no one. Only more of the pulsing red light, the shrill blare of the alarms spilling into the room.
It transported him to another room, to the time Dirk woke to find the door to his room standing open, no one on the other side. He'd followed the pull of the universe then and it had led him straight to Dr. Fenchurch.
The pull of the universe wasn't what drove him now.
That was something else. A sinking sense of dread that crept up his spine, prickling the hairs at the back of his neck. The impulse to flee was overwhelming.
And yet it was Todd who rose to his feet. Todd who crossed the room to peer out into the hall.
Seeing him do so spiked Dirk's apprehension until he was practically trembling with it.
Part of him wanted to remain where he was, secure on a couch that no longer felt secure. And yet something drove him forward, Dirk across the room and standing at Todd's side before he fully registered the intention to move. Todd shot him a quizzical glance.
"Something's wrong," Dirk said, not quite sure how else to verbalize it.
It wasn't Blackwing, and while he knew they undoubtedly knew about the door--were likely sending someone to see to it--that wasn't what held his attention. This was something else, a faint howling echoing through memory, Dirk's skin prickling with unease.
"What do you mean something's wrong?" Todd asked, Dirk straining to hear him over the alarms. Dirk shook his head.
Because he didn't know. The door to the common room was open, the hall beyond it utterly deserted, and he didn't know. He should have seen this as an opportunity, a chance to get Todd away because Dirk was beginning to understand Todd had no intentions of leaving without him.
A part of him, the part molded by years in Blackwing's care, thought they ought to return to the couch; to sit and wait for someone's arrival. Riggins, he suspected, would be proud; would reward Dirk for following the rules. But even that didn't weigh into his decision. There was only impulse. The need to run. The need to flee. To get as far from this place as it was possible to get because risking capture inside the maze that was Blackwing was a far better alternative to whatever was coming for them.
"We have to go," Dirk said, utterly certain then. Todd's eyes widened dramatically.
Half afraid Todd might refuse, Dirk grabbed his arm and pulled him into the hall.
Seventeen systems failures. How was it even possible? Up until this point Griffin could access two, maybe three. But seventeen. This, Dr. Fenchurch thought, was what she got for thinking the matter settled.
And yet Griffin had responded to the dosage. She'd gone dormant. The incident rate had dropped dramatically. This shouldn't have…
"Report," she commanded the young soldier who appeared outside her office. There were several in the hall, all of them armed to the teeth. Against Marzanna, they didn't stand a chance.
Of all the doors to open.
"I have a list of failures," the soldier said, handing over a printout. Dr. Fenchurch snatched it from him with barely concealed contempt. She wanted more than his presence. She wanted iron walls and bolted doors. Manual overrides that should have been in place and yet weren't. Suspicion flared bright and hot in the back of her mind.
Shaking her head, Dr. Fenchurch glanced to the list.
"The system only recognized the alarm trigger," a new voice said, Dr. Fenchurch glancing up as Colonel Riggins swept into the room. Dr. Fenchurch grit her teeth.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean, we've been manually checking doors to find out which ones she opened. Whatever she did, she masked it from the sensors."
Any other circumstance it might have been impressive, save that they were probably going to die. If Marzanna didn't kill them there were half a dozen other subjects who might. Dr. Fenchurch glanced again to the list.
"So this is a list of sight-confirmed breaches?" she asked. Riggins nodded. "And how many are we missing?"
We've checked all forty-two. Of that, only seventeen were open, the occupants dispersed. Oddly enough, Griffin's door remained locked. She's not trying to escape."
Dr. Fenchurch nodded. She wasn't sure Griffin even knew what she was doing.
"Two subjects were out of their room at the time. I've got a team heading to the exercise room and the common room," Riggins continued. He didn't exactly sound alarmed. If anything, she thought he sounded rather pleased.
"Which ones," Fenchurch asked, wincing as she spotted Incubus on her list.
"Svlad and Mona," Riggins replied. Fenchurch waved them aside. Both were relatively harmless. She was more concerned by what would happen if Incubus found either of them.
"I want the entire facility on lockdown until we get this contained. I want a perimeter setup around the facility."
Here she glanced up, staring Riggins down with the full force of her resolve.
"I want this contained. By any means necessary. Authorize your men to use force if they have to, but this doesn't leave Blackwing. Agreed?"
Riggins, whom Fenchurch suspected was playing his own game, gave a reluctant nod. Annoyed, Fenchurch turned back to her list.
In hindsight, perhaps leaving the common room was a bad idea.
And yet, turning back wasn't an option. Perhaps they could find somewhere to hide. A bed. Or a closet. Or some small little nook where no one would think to look for them. He almost suggested it, except a glance in Todd's direction showed Todd looking fiercely resolved; that and more than a little excited, like this was the most thrilling thing he'd done in years.
Dirk rather knew the feeling.
That didn't change the fact that they were hopelessly lost. Blackwing was a never-ending maze of corridors, and twice now they had to divert at the sound of approaching boots. Todd, Dirk realized, was very good at this. Where Dirk might have given up, awaited capture, Todd simply dragged them down another hall.
The alarms had ceased ringing, though the halls were still lit with red, whatever was happening obviously not passed. Around the next corner they heard muffled shouts followed by the startlingly loud crack of gunfire. Dirk froze. Todd's hand curled around his arm.
"This way," Todd said, dragging Dirk back they way they'd come.
The universe, if it wanted him out at all, was doing nothing to provide an exit. It seemed bent only on keeping him away from whatever it was he didn't want to run into. And even that was vague. A sense of foreboding in place of a solid threat.
It left him feeling utterly helpless, so much so that if Riggins had appeared before him Dirk might have run straight into the man's arms. Only Todd, resolute at his side, kept him moving, Dirk content to let Todd lead so long as his chosen direction didn't lead them towards Dirk's unnamed fear.
"I come in from the main lobby," Todd was saying. More shouting echoed from around another corner, but this was muted, distant in a way the gunshot wasn't. "I go through a set of doors and then get onto an elevator. There's only one button, but it feels like it's four, maybe five flights down. The courtyard's on the same level."
He wasn't looking at Dirk as he spoke, his gaze sweeping the corridor ahead. At the next juncture he paused, backing them against a wall before peering cautiously around the corner. He didn't start them moving again until he was sure the way was clear.
"It's about ten minutes and six or seven turns from the elevator to the room we were in."
They had tried, upon leaving the common room, to go back the way Todd had come, but Dirk's instincts had stopped him, whatever lay ahead not something he wanted to run into.
Maybe, he thought, as they paused to peer around another corner, they'd simply spend the day turning in circles. That by the time someone found them the threat would have passed. Dirk could go back to his room--possibly back to the common room to retrieve his London guidebook. And Todd would go home, this enough to ensure he didn't return.
"There's a staircase off the administrative wing," Dirk said, though he would have been hard pressed to find the administrative wing. Wherever they were, this wasn't an area of Blackwing he recognized.
"Stairs would be good," Todd said, bringing them around another corner and then promptly freezing. Dirk nearly plowed into his back.
He had to reposition himself to see over Todd's shoulder, Dirk half expecting to find a soldier, perhaps a technician, someone come to rescue them, to bring them back to the relatively security of their rooms. Too late it occurred to him he was already thinking of Todd as though he was a part of Blackwing. Too late he realized they had more pressing concerns.
Although, perhaps not concerns, Dirk's apprehension strangely absent in the face of this new person. It took Dirk a minute to realize she was wearing the same clothes as Dirk. Another minute to realize she looked the opposite of terrified.
"Hi," Dirk said, excitement replacing his earlier fear. The girl blinked.
Aside from the grey sweats and t-shirt, there was something about the girl that felt oddly familiar. It was like looking into a mirror, Dirk seeing himself reflected back in her gaze. She seemed more amused by their presence than anything else, as though she'd expected someone else and was pleasantly surprised.
"You're one of the others. You're like me," she said. Dirk couldn't help but smile.
"Yes. That's right," Dirk said, a new wave of excitement mounting. "My name is Dirk Gently," he continued, remembering his manners. The girl cocked her head.
"How come you got two names?" she asked, Dirk needing a minute to understand.
"Sorry. Icarus. They call me Icarus," he told her.
He could feel Todd's eyes on him, the weight of Todd's scrutiny crushing. Dirk shifted beneath it, wondering how many of Blackwing's subjects no longer remembered their names. He'd chosen his, but he still knew the name he'd come here with, Riggins using it frequently.
"Marzanna," the girl said, the word almost a grunt. "But the ugly dude, you know, the one with the uniform? He calls me Bart."
She was smiling as she said it, as though she'd told a particularly clever joke. Dirk remembered instantly her file.
"Bartine Curlish," he said. "That was what was written on your file."
If he'd started her, it showed only in the slight widening of her eyes, the girl--Bart--smiling widely at the information.
"Huh," she said, like it was a revelation. "Anyway, there's a stairwell at the end of the hall. Door was open if you're looking for a way out," she continued. Dirk's stomach gave a particularly violent lurch.
"What about you?" he asked.
The hall was strangely quiet now. Too quiet, some of Dirk's apprehension returning. They needed to move. They needed to get as far from this place as they could, and yet Marzanna was still smiling at them, looking for all the world like Dirk was the most interesting person she'd met in ages.
"Nah," she eventually said. "I got… things to do. People to… take care of. Maybe I'll see you outside, though. The universe willing."
And then she was gone, brushing past them on her way up the hall. Dirk turned to watch her go, her words ringing in his head. He thought back to the earlier shouts, to the gunshot that had rung through the halls, and wondered if she'd been involved. He half expected to find a handgun tucked into the small of her back. She moved like someone who knew how to use one.
"Dirk," Todd said, appearing then at his elbow. Dirk glanced over, meeting Todd's worry gaze.
"We should go," Dirk said again, the need pressing. Todd nodded towards the end of the hall.
They found the stairwell, just where Marzanna had said it would be. And just as she'd promised the door was open. Dirk and Todd exchanged a look, and then pushed their way through it.
It marked the first bit of progress they'd made since leaving the common room, and Dirk ought to have been excited. Instead new dread pooled in the pit of his stomach, Dirk pausing at the foot of the stairs to stare up into the darkness.
"What's wrong?" Todd asked, a sharp edge of nervousness bleeding into his tone.
"I just… I guess I didn't think we'd find a way out. I thought someone would find us, and I've never been outside before, and I don't know why but it all feels wrong, like something bad is coming and…"
"Hey," Todd said, his hand appearing on Dirk's arm. Dirk stared down at the place where they were connected, Todd's fingers wrapped around his forearm.
"It'll be fine," Todd said. "I have a car. We'll get out, we'll get in my car, and then we'll…"
If Todd's vague gesture meant anything, Dirk couldn't say. He only knew it wasn't that simple. That regardless of what was happening, the second they got out--if they got out--Dirk would be hunted. Blackwing wouldn't rest until he was brought back into the fold.
"Come on," Todd still said, this time tugging Dirk's arm.
He kept tugging until Dirk's feet began to cooperate, Todd's hand falling away only after they began to climb, Todd in front, Dirk following a pace behind.
It was just like climbing up to the courtyard, except the door they found at the top of the stairs wasn't locked, no key card access needed to get inside. Dirk still froze before it.
His apprehension was back. It seized in his chest, Dirk's breath growing ragged with impending dread.
"Todd, I don't think…" he said, still staring at the door.
But Todd was already moving, the door pulled open. Hoarse screams and shouts flooded the landing.
They were interspersed with the sounds of breaking glass, that and a chorus of howls that Dirk knew only too well. This was what he'd been avoiding. This was what he'd feared. He knew it immediately, his body shrinking in on itself.
"Shit," Todd said, poking his head outside the door.
"Okay, there are like three, maybe four of them. They're wearing your clothes, but…" Here he paused, a particularly loud shout echoing from inside the hall.
"They seem to be destroying things." He ducked his head back out the door. "Maybe if we…"
"No," Dirk said. "They'll see us. It's me they want."
He had no idea what made him say it, but he knew it was true, just as knew they'd sense him the second he stepped out into the hall. What they'd do to him was another story, one Dirk didn't particularly want to read.
"So what do we do."
There was only one thing they could do.
"Run," Dirk said.
He didn't give Todd a chance to answer; didn't even give Todd a chance to process. He merely darted into the hall, instinctively turning away from the destruction while darting towards what he hoped would eventually be an exit.
Though like the path to the courtyard, here the halls were narrow and winding, Dirk fleeing more from a sense of danger than towards a general direction. He could hear Todd struggling to keep up, and then something more sinister: complete and utter silence.
The silence was broken by coarse shouts, Dirk's presence noted, whoever was doing the destroying now actively in pursuit.
Ahead Dirk turned left, the left abruptly becoming a right. He was operating entirely on instinct. There were no pulsing red lights here, and only once did they pass anyone else--a solitary soldier, who trained his weapon on them as they came around a corner, though he lowered it almost immediately, a look of sheer terror appearing on his face when he heard the sounds of pursuit.
"Where are we going?" Todd shouted at him, but Dirk wasn't listening. Another right and then another left and then there, before them, a single door, this with a red exit sign above. Dirk's stomach gave another lurch at the sight. He didn't stop to think. Didn't stop to consider anything. He merely dove towards it, heedless of setting off the alarms, the door giving way with a solid push.
And then they were outside, breathing free, surprisingly damp air, Dirk momentarily too stunned to keep going. He could feel the pull of the universe here in a way he hadn't before. It surrounded him, Blackwing no longer the master of his fate.
That belonged to something else now, Dirk almost laughing at the absurdity of it. Of course he wasn't free. Had he really thought he could simply slip away from Blackwing, take charge of his own destiny?
"I think my car's this way," Todd said, but Dirk shook his head. The distant call of helicopters echoed from overhead.
"We can't take it," Dirk said, utterly certain. He had no idea if they were still being pursued, or if the solitary soldier had provided enough of a distraction, but he knew without a doubt the Blackwing compound was on lockdown, Todd's car far too obvious a target.
"So what do we do?"
Dirk took in his surroundings. They were outside the building, the day still light enough he could just make out the perimeter. He had a vague sense of more space to their right, the direction Todd had pointed apparently containing his car. Ahead was a parking lot, though it was mostly deserted. Beyond it was a wide expanse of field and shrubland that gave way to a cluster of trees. Dirk could see countless lights moving in the distance.
"I'm fairly certain they've set up a perimeter," Dirk said before turning to Todd. He eyed him speculatively. "How far are we from you live?"
"Like forty minutes?" Todd said. "On a good traffic day."
Dirk had no idea what he meant by traffic day, but forty minutes driving was a long time to walk. Even if they weren't spotted, they'd still be in trouble.
To their right the outline of a mountain was visible against the backdrop of the sinking sun. Dirk stared at it for a moment, transfixed. All around civilization sprung up in tiny clusters. They might not make it to where Todd lived, but they could make it somewhere.
"We can still turn around," Dirk said, though he had no intentions of going back through the door. Their pursuers hadn't found them, but that didn't mean they weren't waiting. Better to get caught; to have someone else bring them in.
"Or we can try our luck," Todd said, sounding entirely too pragmatic for such an optimistic suggestion. Dirk liked it immediately.
He'd always assumed, alone in his room, that on the day he left Blackwing he'd feel lost and confused. Or maybe Blackwing would have set him up somewhere, allowed him time to transition. This scenario had never once crossed his mind. And yet he was out. Through the door anyway and that had to count for something. The odds were still stacked against them, but Dirk couldn't help but shoot Todd a grin, Todd returning it as they set out across the parking lot.
Lights still moved in the distance, while helicopters still circled above them, and at one point they heard a commotion from somewhere behind them, but they were too far from the building for their pursuers' arrival to carry much danger.
Todd still took them around the backside of a car, crouching them low as he moved them from cover to cover until they reached the edge of the pavement. They still had an open field to clear before they were back in cover, but the commotion behind them seemed to be drawing in resources, the helicopters rushing back towards the building, taking with them their spot lights and eyes.
"I have a good feeling about this," Dirk said as they started across the field. The universe, he realized, was talking to him, guiding his steps. More importantly, the universe wanted him free. Of that Dirk was certain.
He trusted Todd to know, to get them where they needed to go. He really did. And he should have been content to follow behind, eyes wide as he took in the world outside Blackwing's walls. It was just nothing could have prepared him for this, the world outside Blackwing overwhelming in a way he wasn't prepared for.
For one thing, there were far more trees than he'd anticipated, though he suspected from the rare glimpses he got between the trees that Todd was actively avoiding taking them into civilization. It was still light out, but surrounded on all sides by dense and frankly terrifying forest, Dirk was beginning to grow a bit claustrophobic. This was nothing like the woods on father's estate. This was a dense tangle of undergrowth complete with bugs bigger than his head.
Possibly he was embellishing.
He ought, he suspected, to be thankful they'd gotten out of the compound at all. The odds of finding an exit, of slipping away unnoticed, of so far avoiding the distant sounds of pursuit, were decidedly stacked against them, and yet somehow they'd managed it.
He tried letting that sink in. A bit hard when he still hadn't processed being free, a part of him was still convinced this was all a dream.
It was also bit hard when the crisp, pine-scented air was making his nose run. This would all be so much easier, he thought, if only he had better shoes. The ones Blackwing had provided weren't exactly suited to the rugged terrain. Already they were wet and rubbing, fat blisters forming on his heel. One of the blisters had broken open and was openly bleeding.
On top of that he was still only wearing a t-shirt, and as the light faded so did the temperature. It was hard to be grateful when he was cold, wet, and, if the rumbling in his stomach was any indication, hungry.
Todd, on the other hand, seemed utterly in his element. He led them through the undergrowth with dogged determination, stopping only when they reached an open stretch of highway, and then only to crouch them low and check for signs of pursuit.
Dirk could have told him they were looking in the other direction--even without the hunch the distant rumbling of helicopters told him as much--but Todd looked so utterly focused, so vibrantly alive that Dirk couldn't bring himself to spoil the illusion. Besides, it was rather nice, Todd a bit like an action hero, Dirk more than a little impressed.
"You do know where you're going, don't you," Dirk still asked after they'd crossed yet another road. Instinct was telling him they were moving in the wrong direction, but as he didn't actually know which direction they should be moving in he couldn't exactly suggest an alternative.
"I used to come out here with my band," Todd said, gesturing to the surrounding forest. Dirk took in the thick press of trees and wondered how Todd knew. Everything looked the same to him.
"So we're safe then?" Dirk still asked. It didn't feel dangerous, not in the way Blackwing had, and yet there was something about all this forest that was making him uneasy. "I mean, we're not going to get eaten by bears or something, are we?"
Todd shot him a look that Dirk chose not to interpret. He was a bit worried it was a reprimand for reminding Todd of the bears.
"Look, we're not actually in the middle of nowhere. We're skirting around the edge of McChord Field. Like I said, we used to come out here, camp, watch the planes. There's a small community on the other side. It's probably too close to stop, but we might be able to… I don't know… hitch a ride."
He sounded exasperated, though not, Dirk thought, with Dirk. It was the same tone he'd used when lamenting the loss of his car. Not that Dirk could blame him. This would all be so much easier with transportation. Certainly, he suspected, his feet would hurt less.
Despite Todd's reassurances, an eternity seemed to pass before the forest around them began to thin, signs of more overt civilization springing up around them. He could no longer see Blackwing looming behind them, or even hear the roar of helicopters that had dogged most of their journey so far. The last of the day's light was failing fast, their steps slowing as they tried to navigate the uneven ground. Dirk's stomach twisted with hunger. A fine sheen of sweat had broken out over his brow, and yet his skin was pebbled with gooseflesh, the need for warmth fast becoming a pressing issue. He'd long since lost feeling in his feet.
"Now what?" Todd said as they came to the edge of another road. This one was smaller than the ones they'd crossed, a single line that stretched in either direction, both utterly deserted. Ahead, the first cluster of houses peaked through the trees.
"You're asking me?" Dirk said. Todd shot him a look.
"What do you mean? Of course I'm asking you. I mean, can't you… you know." He gestured vaguely. "With your thing?"
Dirk wasn't entirely sure where to start.
Because until now he'd been happily--or rather not entirely miserably--following Todd through the forest so he'd rather just assumed Todd had a plan. To learn otherwise was, frankly, disappointing.
"I'm fairly certain this was your idea," Dirk said, gesturing around them.
The arrival of dusk had brought with it a plethora of bugs, these seeming content to swarm around Dirk's head, several of them landing to bite.
"My idea? You're the one who said we had to go," Todd said, Dirk remembering then the conversation that had sent them fleeing the common room. They'd needed to go, that was true, but Dirk wasn't entirely sure he'd meant this.
"We should have got my car," Todd was saying.
Dirk let his gaze drift up and down the empty road, then into the cluster of houses, where warm, yellow lights now dotted the landscape.
"Couldn't we stay here? In one of those?" Dirk asked.
The pull of the universe, always present but moreso now than it had even been inside Blackwing, surged in protest. It was as though dozens of tiny strings were contracting and expanding, objecting to the idea before it was even formed.
It reminded him faintly of that first day with Todd in the courtyard, the universe swirling around him, tugging insistently at him while Todd played his guitar. Dirk knew instinctively what he needed to do.
"We can't just break into someone's…" Todd was saying.
"It's this way," Dirk said, rising from where they were crouched in the ditch.
He started them across the road, Todd scrambling to catch up. He seemed to understand what was happening, because instead of taking the lead he hung back, trusting Dirk to take them where they needed to go.
His path took them out of the forest and into a cluster of houses, the first stirrings of suburbia. Dirk moved past them, the soles of his feet grateful for a paved road.
Deeper and deeper into civilization they went until Dirk found what he was looking for. They were still surrounded on all sides by trees, but here and there buildings rose out of the forest, as though someone had planted them; houses and apartments; commercial dwellings bright with neon signs. A squat building sat on their right, an apartment complex by the look of it, four floors with maybe two apartments on each level. Only half the windows were lit.
"Is this where we're going?" Todd asked. He glanced further down the street. "We could probably find a hotel or something, though I still don't think we're far enough away."
"You said you wanted a car," Dirk answered. Todd's gaze grew narrow.
From the far end of the parking lot they watched a car pull into the driveway, the car stopping in front of the building's doors. A man climbed out, in his hands a square white box. A minute later, he'd disappeared through the door, his car still running. Dirk started towards it.
"Whoa, wait," Todd said, jogging to catch up. "You want us to steal a car?"
Dirk didn't miss the incredulity in his voice, though he could hardly fathom it's cause. Of course he didn't want to steal a car. Stealing was wrong. He knew that. Borrow, however…
"It's not stealing," Dirk explained. "It's just… borrowing, and we'll give it back. Or I guess leave it somewhere safe with a note apologizing."
He gave Todd a pointed look and then let his gaze drift back to the apartment. The car was still running, but who knew how long its driver would be inside.
"We really need to…"
"Ugh, fine," Todd said, sounding surprisingly put out. Dirk opted to interpret it as an unwillingness to drive, though when they reached the car Todd firmly pushed Dirk in the direction of the passenger side.
"Do you even know how to drive?" Todd asked when Dirk opened his mouth to protest. It was a fair point, though Dirk was sure he could have figured it out.
Todd, however, seemed resolved, so Dirk climbed in beside him, all of his senses on instant alert.
He was expecting the warmth. He was even expecting the profound relief of getting off his feet. What he wasn't expecting was the smell, the car overflowing with the most delicious aroma Dirk could ever remember inhaling.
"This is so crazy. God, we're going to get arrested," Todd said as they pulled from the parking lot.
He kept checking the rearview mirror, as though expecting an army to appear behind them at any moment. Dirk supposed he had good cause, though Dirk was fairly certain they had time. Granted, he was equally certain eventually it would run out.
In the meantime, the smell seemed to be coming from the backseat, so Dirk set about tracking down its source.
Aside from a discarded coat--which Dirk fully intended on retrieving--there was only a strange looking styrofoam case, this open to reveal another white box, like the one the car's owner had taken into the building. Instinctively Dirk reached for it, surprised to find it pleasantly hot. He drew it into the front seat and sat it upon his lap.
As soon as the box was open he knew what it was. This was it. The mysterious pizza. The thing he'd lamented having never tried before. Suddenly leaving Blackwing. The terrifying walk through the forest. It all came together, this his reward for trusting the universe's hand. Smiling broadly, Dirk lifted a slice from its breaded edge and stuffed the pointed end in his mouth.
Flavour burst across his tongue. He might have groaned.
"Oh, Todd," he said around a mouthful. "You have to try this."
He held a clean corner of the piece up for Todd to try, but Todd merely shot him a glare, Dirk not entirely sure what had happened to sour Todd's mood. Perhaps he didn't like pizza, which seemed rather bizarre, but then more impossible things had happened.
Driving was easy. Or rather, directing Todd to drive was easy. Only once did Dirk divert Todd's intended route, Todd surprisingly amenable to following Dirk's whims. This wasn't a main road, but rather one that twisted and wound its way through an ever denser growing city, the occasional siren in the distance the only cause for alarm.
"We need to ditch this car as soon as we can," Todd said after the third such siren. Dirk, on his third slice, glanced over to find Todd jumpy and on edge.
"Before or after we get to your place?" Dirk asked around a mouthful of cheese.
Had he not been staring at Todd, waiting for some indication of what to do, he might have missed it. Instead he caught the full brunt of Todd's wince, new uncertainty pooling in his gut.
"Look," Todd said, sounding vaguely apologetic. "I don't actually have a place. Yet. I've been staying in my car. It's just temporary, but now… Blackwing, or whoever they are, have my car and…
"Look, we'll figure it out, okay," he finished, though Dirk heard the uncertainty in his tone.
All it once it struck him. Todd was scared. Terrified, even, and that was something Dirk understood only too well. It didn't matter how far they ran, or even in which direction they ran. Blackwing would find them. He'd been naive to think getting away from Blackwing would somehow make them safe. If anything, the only thing he'd done was endanger Todd.
In an instant his visions of touring London, Todd at his side, vanished. He knew without a doubt it wasn't Todd Blackwing wanted. Not unless he came voluntarily. Dirk, on the other hand. Dirk they'd come for. Dirk they'd hunt to the ends of the earth.
Twenty years. Twenty years devoted to the program, to a vision anyone else would have dismissed offhand, and what did she have to show for it? Screaming alarms. Broken glass. Seventeen--seventeen!--missing subjects.
"Please tell me you have some good news," she asked the technician who'd appeared inside her door. The technician blanched. Apparently not. Figured.
How had the system so thoroughly failed? If she didn't know any better, she'd think Griffin wanted the others free. She'd done nothing to free herself, and yet again and again she'd opened doors, cut out cameras, redirected resources. Seventeen subject, the breach now hours old, and none of them had been retrieved.
How did this happen? she wondered, not realizing she'd said the question out loud until the technician answered.
"I don't know," the woman said, utterly shaken. Fenchurch wondered if she'd witnessed Marzanna's massacre, six of her fellow technicians dead. Marzanna was one of the seventeen.
God, what had they done?
Part of her wanted desperately to blame Riggins, to think this was his doing. He'd been so adamant about getting Icarus into the field. She wouldn't have put it past him to use this to his advantage. And yet, he wouldn't have risked Marzanna. Not knowing what they did. Then again...
"Go home," she told the technician. There was no point in her staying, and the woman was clearly traumatized. There were questions that needed answering, blame that would be assigned, but none of that fell to the technician standing before her. She, Fenchurch suspected, had been punished enough for a lifetime.
"I was thinking we could go to my parents," Todd said as he unlocked the door. Dirk watched the key turn in the doorknob, still marvelling at the size of its keychain.
They'd stopped about an hour ago, the sky now fully dark, night having descended. Dirk clutched his newly acquired jacket--a battered army green thing that decidedly lacked in both comfort and colour--to his chest. It was at least three sizes too big, but it blocked the wind, and the damp, and for that Dirk was grateful.
They'd ditched the car a mile back, down the road from a gas station where Todd had wiped their fingerprints using wet-naps they'd found in the glovebox. He wouldn't let Dirk write a note, something about handwriting analysis.
And now here they were, a mile down the road, standing beneath the flashing neon vacant side of a roadside motel.
"If we call them in the morning, I bet my dad would come pick us up."
He sounded vaguely uncertain, as though he didn't actually think his parents would abandon him, but thought there was a possibility nonetheless. Dirk hadn't asked how much money Todd had, but given the way he'd winced after booking the room, Dirk suspected it wasn't a lot.
In addition to endangering Todd's life, he was also apparently draining Todd's resources.
It rather made it clear what he had to do--he'd been thinking about it since the gas station--so the moment they were safely inside, the door bolted behind them, Dirk sat himself on the edge of the bed and calmly met Todd's eye.
"I don't think this is going to work," he said.
Todd, who was in the process of shucking his flannel shirt, the air in the room unnaturally warm, glanced over.
"Going to my parents?" he asked. Dirk shook his head.
"Going anywhere. I mean… I can't go anywhere. Not where Blackwing won't find me. I'm not safe. And as long as you're with me, you're not safe. I…"
Todd, who seemed to understand what Dirk was saying, shook his head. He crossed the room to stand at Dirk's side and then, after a few moments contemplation, sat alongside him on the bed.
"Look, I'm not just going to abandon you, okay. If I was going to do that I wouldn't have come back, I…"
"Why did you come back?" Dirk asked. He hadn't really meant to, but impulse forced the question, the desire to know overwhelming decorum.
In lieu of answering, Todd ducked his head.
"You knew they were dangerous. I told you to run, and you came back. Twice. Todd, I…"
He paused, Todd staring at him now, Dirk acutely aware of where they were. This wasn't Blackwing. No one was monitoring them. No one was listening in. There were no cameras planted in the ceiling. The air was hot and dry; the room dark and garishly decorated. The quilt on the bed matched the drapes, which in turn matched the carpet, which in turn matched the wallpaper, a horrifying shade of mustard yellow cut through with thick ribbons of gold. There was only one bed.
"I just want you to be safe," Dirk finished, speaking just under his breath.
"What? And I don't want you to be safe? I mean, we're friends, Dirk. Of course we want to keep each other safe."
Dirk wanted to answer. To tell Todd there was only one way for Dirk to keep Todd safe, but his brain caught on a single word, friends hovering in the air between them. It caught in his chest, Dirk understanding then what he hadn't before. He liked Todd. He liked Todd more than he'd ever liked anyone. More than he'd ever expected to like anyone. And by some twist of fate Todd liked him too. And if he stayed…
If he stayed, Todd might get hurt.
"Look, let's just sleep on it, and we'll talk about it in the morning," Todd was saying, Dirk's gaze drawn to the dark circles under his eyes.
He gave a brief nod. He was tired. Exhausted even. And even if he wasn't he had no money. No concept of where he'd go or what he'd do. He didn't think he'd have made it this far if it weren't for Todd.
Todd, who was calmly undressing and crawling into bed.
Had they really done this? Had they walked away from Blackwing without a backwards glance? How many years had he spent imagining such a scenario? How many years had he plotted and planned his life post-Blackwing. And now here he was, hidden away in a tiny hotel room with the very first friend he'd ever made.
A friend whose life he valued about his own. A friend he was even now putting at risk.
Realizing he was on the verge of tears, Dirk excused himself and went to the washroom, a tiny room that might have reminded him of Blackwing had it been clean instead of grimy with mould. There he washed his face and used his finger to brush his teeth. He slipped off his blood-soaked shoes and hung his borrowed jacket on the back of the door. He spent a full minute staring at his reflection in the mirror, the man before him barely recognizable from the pictures he'd seen.
Blackwing hadn't given him a mirror.
He spent another minute contemplating his clothes, but he opted to leave them on, heading back into the main room only to find Todd sprawled inelegantly across the bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open.
You can't stay, the universe told him, an undeniable pull that wanted him back in his coat and shoes and out the door. You'll only bring him harm.
His hunches were never wrong, and yet just once Dirk wished they were. He wanted so badly to stay. To wake up in the morning knowing he could do anything so long as Todd was by his side. Without really meaning to he found himself slipping beneath the covers, curling onto his side so that he could watch Todd's profile as he slept. Would it be so bad if he stayed, he wondered. How long before Blackwing found them? How long before Dirk's presence grew to be a liability? How long before Todd came to view him as such?
The day was catching up with him, his eyes growing heavy, his breathing gone shallow, until he could no longer escape the lure of slumber. He fell asleep to the sound of Todd's breathing, his dreams unfolding like a map. A very specific map. A map he'd left tucked inside his London guidebook, which was lying on a coffee table secure inside Blackwing's walls.
Todd sat bolt upright on the bed, the sound of a car backfiring--not a gunshot, not a gunshot--jolting him awake.
Several long seconds passed before he remembered where he was, Todd blinking at the obnoxiously ugly wallpaper until it all came back to him. Dirk.
His gaze fell immediately to the divot in the mattress beside him, but the space was empty, faint wrinkles in the sheet the only indication Dirk was there. He pressed his hand into the mattress, but the space was cold, Dirk hours gone. A quick glance confirmed the room was empty.
It was possible he'd simply gone out for breakfast, though Todd was fairly certain he had no money, the last of Todd's--along with everything he owned--now sitting in a Blackwing parking lot alongside his car.
God, he hated his life sometimes.
He checked the bathroom first, just in case, but it was empty, nothing to indicate Dirk was ever there. The rest of the room was similarly bare, the only thing out of place a single sheet of paper turned over on the desk. Todd's stomach sank the second he spotted it.
He was tempted to ignore it, to pretend this was just another in a long line of mistakes, this certainly not the first time he'd woken up alone in a hotel room. That he wasn't hung over was a decided improvement on the last time.
Unsurprisingly, the sheet of paper was a letter, this written in an unfamiliar hand that could only belong to Dirk. Dear Todd, it said, far more formal than anything Todd would have written.
I feel I should start by apologizing. I know we said we'd talk about this in the morning, but I think I know you well enough by now to know you were never going to let me leave. And the thing is, I have to leave. For your sake. Blackwing is interested in you, but they have no claim to you. They won't come after you. That's not the case with me, and I don't think they'll ever stop trying to find me. I don't want you to get hurt because of me. I care about you. And you said we were friends and friends keep each other safe. This is me keeping you safe.
I told you the universe wants something bigger for you, and I think it does, even if it that doesn't mean what you think it'll mean. It very rarely does. But I know whatever it is, it can't happen if I'm here. It can't happen if you get hurt, or worse, killed, because of me.
Either way I'm sorry. I would have liked to have spent more time with you. And to have gotten to know you. And for us to have been friends forever, because, as I said, I really like you. Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I'm not sure, because this is all still really new for me, but I feel like we'll maybe see each other again. Maybe not for a while. But someday.
PS: I don't think they'll stop you taking your car back, but maybe wait a few days just to be safe.
He probably shouldn't be surprised--he knew Dirk was too good to be true from practically the moment they met--but a part of him thought that maybe this was it. Maybe he'd met the one person who actually gave a damn about him; who actually liked him, enough to want to stay.
Not that this was Dirk's doing. If anything maybe he was too good to be true, because he honestly believed sticking around put Todd at risk and Todd wasn't sure anyone else would have cared. That didn't mean it didn't hurt. More so because he genuinely liked the guy, enough to start think about possibilities and maybes and the potential for something more.
God he was stupid.
Stupid and stuck in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, with no money and no car and no way out except a single phone call he didn't want to make.
Resigned, Todd pulled out his cell and dialed his parents' number.
He took the stairs two at a time, Patrick Spring's voice echoing in his ear. It's time, he'd said, Dirk as nervous as he was excited.
He'd never had a case like this. A case that warranted staying in fancy hotel. A case that warranted the purchase of three new jackets. A case that allowed him to rent what was arguably the coolest car he'd ever seen. He was finally a real detective, and he was going to solve this case and save Patrick Spring and…
Run head first into a man wearing a gorilla mask who was being followed by another man wearing a giraffe mask. Well. That was strange. Interesting. But strange. Possibly not as strange as the medieval knight they seemed to be chaperoning, but…
Whatever else he might have thought on the subject vanished in the place of impending attack. Dirk barely had time to register what was happening before the gorilla man was charging towards him. He tore his mask off as he approached, his hands colliding with Dirk's shoulders, Dirk's back roughly hitting the wall. Half terrified, half incredulous, he forced himself to meet the man's gaze only to find…
Clearly he was missing something.
"Listen very carefully," the other him said. Dirk shook his head.
"What… What's happening?" he asked, but the other him waved the question aside.
"It's a mess up there, but we're going to figure it out," other-Dirk said. Dirk rather liked the sound of that, though it still didn't explain…
In the process of trying to process all that he was seeing, Dirk had let his gaze drift over his other self's shoulder, to the man who had been wearing the giraffe mask. He'd taken the mask off, his eyes wide and blinking as though equally confused by what he was seeing. None of that seemed particularly important.
What was important, perhaps the most important thing that had ever happened to him, post Blackwing at least, was that Dirk immediately recognized the man. Stunned, he turned his attention back to the other Dirk.
The other Dirk offered him a wide, satisfied grin.
"He's at the Ridgely," the other Dirk said. Dirk's heart fluttered painfully in his chest.
He had no idea where or even what the Ridgely was, but he knew what it meant. Todd was there. He was being given a second chance. A chance for a connection he long regretted having severed. A chance for a friend. Letting his gaze drift back to Todd, who was now regarding him with fond exasperation, Dirk let himself feel hope for the first time in…
The universe, it seemed, was finally starting to work in his favour.